Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Great Train Robbery

"In 1854, Alfred Noble was just beginning his career ; the Swedish chemist would not discover dynamite for another decade... Thus, in the nineteenth century, any decently constructed metal safe represented a genuine barrier to theft".
Michael Crichton, The Great Train Robbery.

It was also the time when the grandparents of orville and wilbur wright were still sucking their thumbs, draped in their victorian clothes, wondering about their next delicious dose of gripewater. Jackhammers and cranes were yet to invented, electronics was slowly beginning to show a flicker of hope, and electronic commerce was confined to dismal works of science fiction.

In the absence of any better means of transportation and transaction, money was physically moved from one place to another in heavy safes inside steam engined trains. It was impossible to move them from their steel safes, let alone dreaming of a steal from moving trains. It was also impossible to pick the safe's perfect locks, cut them open or break the doors. Thus, it was considered safe enough to transport millions of pounds in large, heavy safes from London to Europe to feed the British troops in the Crimean war. All that was required was to protect the safes from being opened enroute, and the smart bankers accomplished this by building perfect locks with multiple keys (stored in multiple locations). Every good locksmith was, thus, denied the simple pleasures of his profession.

The only way of robbing the money was to locate all of the keys, make discrete copies and do the snatch as the train moved. This is easier said than done, especially when the keys hang around the necks of the bank managers, who would rather have your throat than part with their money.

A robbery following this elaborate tactic of stealing the keys is precisely what Mr. Edward Pierce along with his accomplices managed to do in 1855. It stunned the English who had assumed all along that their stash was impenetrable. Railways fell from the high pedestal it was on. It was the first such meticulously planned robbery - a trail blazer. The nature of the job was so upscale that the robbery elicits a sense of incredulous admiration, even today.

The logical nature of this complex and brilliantly executed plan makes a compelling read. Crichton has put together the entire book from court records of this case and the confessions of the captured thieves. Thus, the story is based on true events. After reading this book, you will know more about the English society than the Brits and understand progress in a way you never thought you could. But the best part is, despite the flux of information, Crichton manages to keep it exciting throughout. To cut a long story short, it is an excellent book, especially since it sates the inherent curiosity in every one of us, to plunge into the depths of a criminal mind.


Blogger ligne said...

sounds like a great read..:)

9:13 AM  
Blogger littlecow said...

It is!

8:26 PM  
Blogger atma_tripta said...

Bala, you got me interested here. I will get back after I read this. ordered the copy from undergrad lib.

6:58 PM  

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