Richard Feynman: Nuclear Physicist and Safe Cracker

Safe with Open Door_Silver Trading Company_iStock_000016460757_ExtraSmallMany years ago, my father was the part owner of a local bank. When I would accompany him to the bank as a young boy, the big vault door always fascinated me. I would stand next to the open door and study the lock workings through the glass panel on the back of the door, hoping eventually to figure out how to crack its secrets. Years later, I purchased the old cash safe out of that same vault and now have it on display in my office as an antique.

That old safe frequently comes to mind because one decision that a gold and silver investor has to make is where to keep the darn stuff. There are several options. You can put your cache in a bank safe deposit box, you can leave it on deposit with your broker, you can bring it home and lock it up in your own safe, you can hide it, you can invest in a fund that sells shares of gold stored in a bonded vault, you can buy mining shares, you can buy futures and so forth. The list is almost endless.

If you are investing for security, however, there is nothing like having a little gold and silver at home in a safe so that you can always get to it regardless of what happens. I am not talking about having large portions of metals stored at home, but modest amounts. If that thought makes you jittery, just think of what you have stored in your garage in “rolling stock.” Most people do not think twice about leaving their $40,000 car outside in the driveway. You need only simply take reasonable precautions with a reasonable amount of metals, beyond that you move on to other investing venues.

In the past, manufacturers made safes massive because they locked up real money. Take an afternoon and visit the local used safe dealer in your town. (Stay away from the new safes at retail outlets. You can buy a bank quality used safe at a very reasonable price now.) Look at safes that have been removed from the local bank that closed a few years ago. There are plenty of them, and they are cheap. For under $1,000 you can get quite a deal if you do not mind a scratch or two. Remember that you are interested in security and not a nice exterior finish. And if you decide to invest in a safe to have at home, be careful how you set your combination.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” you say. “Who would be so foolish as to not set a proper combination?”

Read on.

I recently read a couple of books about Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who helped to develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II. It seems that Mr. Feynman was quite a hands-on kind of guy and liked to tinker with different things for his own amusement. He claimed that Los Alamos did not offer much else to do for amusement after work in those days. When he began working there, everyone had locking file cabinets in their offices for their secret papers. The first cabinets had small three-tumbler locks that he learned to pick rather easily, but after a short while, new safe cabinets were ordered that had three-disk Mosler combination locks to secure their contents. Feynman, who loved puzzles, took his lock apart one night in his office to see how it worked. He figured out that there were 1,000,000 different possible combinations with three disks at 100 numbers each (that is, 100 to the third power).

He tinkered for a while and found out that dialing the combination code two numbers either way would still work. This reduced the number of combinations to 8,000 possibilities (20 to the third power). Through experimentation he found out that if a file cabinet were unlocked, he could turn the dial carefully while applying pressure to the bolt throw handle and pick up the last two numbers of the combination. Then all that remained unknown was the first number of the combination; this, in turn, left only twenty different possibilities to open the cabinet!

Plotting some fun, Feynman carefully recorded the last two numbers of his colleagues’ “secure” file cabinet while he was in their offices during his workday. People just thought that Feynman’s casually spinning the dial on their open safes was a nervous habit of his. Pretty soon, word got out that Feynman could “crack open” the secure file cabinets. Whenever a document was needed urgently and someone was on leave, the person who needed the document would ask him to open the safe containing the urgently needed information. Feynman would gather a few tools, check his list of numbers and lock himself in the office with the locked safe. Once out of sight of his colleagues, he would open the safe quite easily within a couple of minutes, read a book for another half hour to give the impression that he’d put forth an important amount of effort, then open the office door and declare that he had cracked the safe.

Feynman did try to learn how to really open safes; he even read several books on the subject. Unfortunately, they all seemed to digress to useless hints about human nature such as many people’s habit of using as codes birthdays or other significant dates, numbers scribbled on the bottom or top of the secretary’s phone list or the top edge of her desk drawer and so forth. As a physicist, he might have been hoping for something with a bit more arithmetic flash.

Later, however, Feynman needed to gain entry into a library of secret documents on a Saturday only to find out it was closed. He recalled that one of his friends was in charge of declassifying documents and had copies of all the papers he needed in each of the nine secure file cabinets in his office. Feynman was able to get into his friend’s office but did not have a clue what the last two numbers for any of those nine safes were, so he fell back on the old human nature tricks that he earlier had dismissed. Sure enough, the secretary had a list of Greek characters carefully printed out under the glass on her desk. Next to pi was the number 3.14159. Why did the secretary need to have pi out to the fifth decimal place on her desk? You guessed it. Not only was it the combination to the first cabinet but also to the remaining eight cabinets! Feynman could hardly contain his delight. His friend, meanwhile, almost lost it when, returning to his office on Monday, he found Feynman’s cryptic notes in his cabinets advising him to, “be more careful with his country’s most valuable secrets.”

My favorite safe cracking adventure by the world famous physicist happened when Feynman’s colleagues were selling some surplus equipment at Los Alamos after the war. Some time earlier, one captain had installed an expensive safe for his office, because he was anticipating much larger secrets than the others. The captain had moved on, but the safe he’d left behind had to be opened before it could be sold to make sure there was nothing of a sensitive nature left inside. Feynman had heard that the new locksmith had been called up to drill the safe. Naturally, he did not want to miss this spectacle, so he went to the captain’s old office only to find out that the new locksmith had already cracked open the safe.

Feynman was obsessed with meeting this new lock picking genius from the maintenance department and set about trying to casually meet him. After weeks of nonchalantly walking by his shop, first waving to and then chatting with the maintenance man, Feynman dropped in at the shop for lunch one afternoon. Feynman finally revealed his secret of picking off the last two combination numbers from an open safe. The locksmith had never heard of the method and was very impressed.

Feynman, in turn, asked the locksmith how he had opened the captain’s safe, and the fellow confessed that when his supervisor had ordered him to drill the safe, he didn’t have a clue how to do it. However, he loaded a drill and some bits in a bag, then headed off to try his best. He figured he would put on a good show, drill into the door, then come up with some excuse for why it would not open. When he reached the captain’s office and saw the safe, the locksmith, who had worked in a safe manufacturing facility years before, suddenly remembered that all the new safes were set with one of two combinations at the factory. They were supposed to be reset by the final owner upon installation of the safe. On that day, in his moment of desperation, he tried both of the factory settings, and the safe opened! He then simply reported that the job was done and went back to his shop, relieved that he wouldn’t be fired.

Over the remaining weeks of that last summer Feynman tried as many safes as he could with the two factory settings and found that 20% of the safes that held the most secure secrets of the atomic bomb still had the original factory combinations!

Remember, your safe isn’t “safe” until you change the combination.

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Since 2001, Larry LaBorde has sold gold, silver, platinum and palladium for investment to clients in the U.S. and around the world through his firm, Silver Trading Company LLC. The firm also offers guidance about metals storage options. We love your feedback! Please email Larry with your thoughts about this article or your questions about metals or storage.

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