My research interests range from the practical, like methods of manipulating disc detainer locks, to the philosophical, like wondering why you lock your door. I've tackled a few major projects, and hopefully have many more ahead of me. If you want to see what's on tap for the next couple of years, check out the "Upcoming Research" section, or you can dig through my older work in the perfectly named "Previous Research" section. Here, though, I'll cover some work I've recently finished, or at least temporarily set aside.
Rethinking the Origins of the Lock
In March of this year I finally presented my paper on the origins of the Lock at CarolinaCon. My efforts were mostly to bring together the history of the "Egyptian Lock" and the exceptional work that has been done by a handful of archaeologists, linguists, and Assyriologists (several of whom dwell comfortably in all three of those categories). By first exploring how the Egyptian theory came to be, I was then able to pull it apart. I set out to debunk the original "4000 year" timeline, then explore possible alternative origins in Mesopotamia, and finally make a case for a technological precursor to the first mechanical lock. Again, my only real contribution was connecting the dots between disparate fields, I was operating entirely on the efforts of other generous scholars.
The paper has been about 4 years in the making, and in particular, the last few months have been very exciting. Resources that were unavailable to me in 2011 were suddenly coming online and I seem to have crossed some threshold of knowledge that let me move much faster and deeper through the fields that I had been relying on for my theory. I delayed publication several times, trying to find a more "academic" voice, and went through a bit of a crisis of faith in my own work. Thankfully, I have some wonderful friends, Molly Sauter, Deb Chachra, and Andrew Sempere among them, who helped me refine my work and, perhaps more importantly, accept my own efforts and voice as valid. As I have always been a bit more at ease on stage than on the page, the talk that went along with the paper definitely had a more free, passionate voice behind it, and expands on the stories referenced in the paper.
The Yale and Towne Collection
This is definitely not finished, but lacking funding and time, I've had to write up everything I know, and put a pin in this for the time being. The Yale & Towne Collection is particularly near to my heart because of the incredibly tenuous (so thin!) connection between my family and Henry Robinson Towne. In January of 2013, I was attending ORDCamp where I met the head of acquisitions for the Museum of Science & Industry. She happened to overhear me talking locks with someone and introduced herself. She told me that the museum had just been approached by a widow who wanted to donate her husband’s lock collection, but that they didn’t really know what to do with it, or if they should bother. All I knew at the time was that he was an employee of Yale & Towne. I put on the best show I could to convince her to acquire the locks. In January of 2014, I was back in Chicago for the same conference when I received an email saying that the locks had been acquired, and it wasn’t just Yale locks, but a huge collection of locks from around the world over the past couple thousand years; and would I like to come unbox them for a small audience?
For the rest of that year I was consumed by the mysteries tied up in the collection. How had it become split into 3 massive parts? Where was the missing third? Who in their right mind would have ordered the destruction of keys and lock parts from 2000 years ago? In the process I had the opportunity to photograph an amazing collection of locks held by the Stamford museum, interview Yolanda Pope, the woman who donated the MSI's third of the collection, and hold in my hands keys recovered from Pompeii. This project has been full of surprises and incredible opportunities. My dream is to see all of these locks redisplayed someday, hopefully even touring.
The Great Lock Controversy of 1851
Again, this definitely isn't completely finished, but the time has come for me to set it aside for a little while. I've recently had the opportunity to go on the record about the Lock Controversy for the BBC, Virginia Quarterly Review, and, fulfilling a personal dream, the amazing 99% Invisible, which has me feeling a bit less anxious about letting this one go. The lock controversy is the topic that first piqued my interest in the history of security, and the first talk I gave that attracted the interest of academics. Early on I was definitely operating with more enthusiasm than accuracy, though, and if you listen to or watch my talks on the subject year after year, you'll see the growing pains as I start to iron out some inaccuracies.
The broad strokes concern 2 important lock manufacturers, an upstart American lockpicker, and the death of belief in Perfect Security. It's a massive story, my notes and documentation seem endless at times, and I don't feel like I've ever told it in full, but I'll definitely circle back around to get it all on paper. Communicating the controversy to reporters, who ask questions that my typical audiences don't, has found me digging into first principles. I've been getting as simple and clear as possible, and in the process I may have been inspired. After all these years of investigating the "what", "how", "where", and "who" of security, I finally have a spark of an idea about "why". You can read some of my early thoughts in the upcoming research section.