KEN KIRSCHENBAUM, ESQ
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Alarm Industry History: Edwin Holmes, Father of the Modern Burglar Alarm Business Part 7
November 19, 2020
Alarm Industry History: Edwin Holmes, Father of the Modern Burglar Alarm Business
The Holmes Alarm was legendary in New York City, if not the entire US. Below is John Fischer’s second article on the History of the Alarm Industry. He focuses on details about Edwin Holmes. When I began representing the alarm industry in 1975 Edwin Holmes was long gone, but Holmes Protection [I think that was the name] was a formidable alarm company in NYC, and one of my earliest alarm clients. One collection case still sticks in my mind. Holmes turned over a collection case; the subscriber owed $900 a month; I forget how many months were still owed on the contract [we used full 100% acceleration in those days]. So I start a lawsuit. I get a call from the subscriber, who starts the conversation with “do you know who I am”. Having practiced law for a year or so, and having handled hundreds of alarm collection cases by then, I was intrigued. So I responded, “no”. He proceeded to tell me that he was the prominent owner and publisher of the New York Law Journal, the preeminent legal newspaper in the country. I was impressed. He went on to tell me that he had never been sued in his life. I suspect I’ve sued plenty of that class since then. But, back to the story, I asked him which one of his buildings he was paying $900 a month for. Keep in mind that this is in the late 1970s. I think monitoring was $10 bucks a month. So he tells me it’s not his commercial building, but his personal apartment [I forgot how big it was]. I was so shocked I asked how it was that he was paying $900 a month. His response was that he was a Holmes customer for over 40 years [which would have started in late 1930s], and that his monitoring rate had been pennies but he had annual increases since then.
Don’t you just love RMR? So I went from shocked to stunned. I settled for $900 and a year’s free subscription to his other publication, World Law Journal, or something like that. Edwin Holmes must still be laughing.
Here’s John’s article:
Edwin Holmes – The Father of the Modern Burglar Alarm
By John G. Fischer, Affiliated Monitoring, Inc.
Yesterday we discussed Augustus R. Pope and his invention of the Electro-Magnetic Burglar Alarm. As is often the case, the inventor is not always a businessman, and Pope proved no exception. This chapter in our history explains how Edwin Holmes took the Pope patent and transformed it into one of the most successful businesses of the late nineteenth century using sophisticated advertising and marketing techniques.
Edwin Holmes was born on April 25, 1820 in West Boylston, MA to Sally and Thomas Holmes. Thomas Holmes, a New Hampshire native and town postmaster, married Sally Graves in February of 1815. He descended from a Londonderry family that had settled in New Hampshire during the early 18th century. Sally boasted an English lineage dating back to the mid 1600’s when her ancestors migrated to Connecticut from the English county of Kent. Edwin, the third child born to Thomas and Sally and oldest living son at the time of his birth (firstborn Thomas died at the age of three), revolutionized the burglar alarm industry. His widespread success even led some people to mistakenly identify him, rather than Pope, as the inventor of the modern electric burglar alarm.
Edwin Holmes did not begin his career in the burglar alarm business. He was nearly thirty years of age when, in 1849, he and his younger brother John, opened a “notions” store on Tremont Row in Boston. They sold among other things, thread, lamp wicks, and hoop skirts. During these formative years of entrepreneurship, Holmes advertised in local newspapers. This experience would prove valuable in the future, when his business acumen and marketing skills propelled his burglar alarm business to great success. He sold to both commercial and residential customers and advertised to them in separate ways. Two ads published within a year of each other in the Boston Daily Atlas are reproduced below. The piece on the left clearly appeals to the lighting needs of a residential customer (Solar, Camphene, Argand and Liverpool lamps were common household oil lamps), while the advertisement on the right is aimed for the same purposes to the commercial sector of Boston.
Whether or not the Holmes’ brothers succeeded at there venture is a matter of conjecture. By 1857 a published newspaper account lists the brothers as insolvent; however it was around this time that Edwin Holmes began spending many of his days at the Charles Williams telegraph shop, which was conveniently located on Washington Street around the corner from the Holmes thread store. Williams would become a premiere manufacturer of telegraphic equipment in the United States and his shop served as a gathering place for hobbyists, electricians and telegraph enthusiasts of the time. It may have been here that Holmes was first introduced to Augustus Russell Pope. Pope, a Unitarian minister from Sommerville, spent much of his free time tinkering with his patented electro-magnetic burglar alarm, and Holmes envisioned great potential. Pinpointing precisely when Pope sold the patent rights to Holmes proves difficult. What we do know is that sometime between mid 1857 and May of 1858, Pope, ill with typhoid fever, sold the patent rights of his invention to Holmes for $1500.00 down and $8000.00 in notes. In late May of 1858, Pope passed away at the age of thirty-nine. Noting Pope’s inability to successfully market the burglar alarm in Boston, Holmes began spending more and more time in New York City, and sometime in 1859, he packed his bags and brought his family and fledgling business to New York, where he believed “all the country’s burglars” made their home.
Holmes arrival in the busy port city just prior to the Civil War preceded a period of tremendous commercial growth for both New York and the country. Holmes leased space on Canal Street and moved frequently over the first ten years, always locating himself near the center of trade close to or on lower Broadway. This area was home to the city’s jewelry industry, banks and telegraph community. Holmes took up residence across the river in the still independent city of Brooklyn, ferrying his way each day to Manhattan to sell his “Burglar-Alarm.” Despite tumultuous times, the young business slowly took root. Gradually Holmes’ marketing and advertising skills, coupled with endorsements from prominent New Yorkers guided the business to success. Technically, the alarm system remained virtually unchanged for the first six or seven years, so its growth can only be attributed to its reliability, and to Holmes’ ability to sell to a distrusting public. The overwhelming problem that Holmes faced was precisely that which made the burglar alarm work – electricity. In 1859, electricity was misunderstood and mistrusted by the general public, not to mention many scientists. Electricity carried with it visions of danger and death; therefore, the proposition of actually installing a device in a home or business that relied on electricity frightened many prospective customers. In addition to this problem, advertising was not regulated in any way, so establishing credibility for a distrusted electrical device proved to be challenging. Holmes remained undeterred. While Holmes would eventually market his alarm to both residential and commercial customers, initially Holmes viewed the alarm as primarily a form of residential protection. An 1861 pamphlet labeled a “treatise” offered testimonials written by thirty customers who had installed the alarm in their homes, and the entire publication is focused on residential security. The treatise cited statistics from the New York Police Department and state prisons using what might be described today as “scare tactics.” The reliance on testimonials lent credibility to the burglar alarm, and the fact that his business grew by 1866 to a client base of more than 1200 customers proves that Holmes’ advertising and pamphlet publication worked.
Holmes advertised more and more throughout the 1860’s and he published his next detailed pamphlet in 1868 simply named Testimonials. This publication appeals to both a commercial and residential audience; with advertising pointedly aimed at “banks and other public buildings.” Page after page cites testimonials from many of the most respected customers of the day and reads like a “who’s who” of the mid-nineteenth century. Names still recognizable including P.T. Barnum, John Lord of Lord & Taylor and HD Brooks of Brooks Brothers all testify to the credibility of the Holmes Alarm.
One notable change in the 1868 pamphlet, as compared to his 1861 publication, that almost certainly helped Holmes overcome the public’s objection to electricity warrants close examination. Early on, Holmes could not decide on a name for his alarm. Electro-magnetic burglar alarm, house alarm, telegraph alarm, electric alarm and alarm bell all appear in the 1861 treatise. Starting in or around 1863, Holmes standardizes on “burglar alarm telegraph.” This seemingly minor change apparently made quite a difference, and logic reveals why. The telegraph changed the world in 1844 when the first telegraph wire was strung between Baltimore and Washington D.C. The Civil War served only to heighten the necessity of the telegraph. Although not a telegraph in the strict sense of the word, the burglar alarm did notify people of a problem, and more importantly, the public trusted telegraphs. By the time Holmes published his 1868 list of testimonials, the Holmes alarm is ubiquitously referred to as a “burglar alarm telegraph” and a drawing of the alarm bell appears in all of Holmes’ advertising. It even appears in the public directories of the day, not as a stand-alone advertisement, but alongside Holmes’ name.
Even by today’s standards this demonstrates a superior level of marketing for an independent entrepreneur. By standardizing in a trusted name and a picture, Holmes effectively brands his device and within a few years his alarm bell is instantly recognizable as a “burglar alarm telegraph.” Evidence of its success can be seen in classified real estate listings in the 1870’s, which often listed a Holmes Burglar Alarm Telegraph to help sell a premise.
By 1868 the alarm had also grown technologically. Holmes began offering a system with a clock that would turn the alarm on and off, and a latching circuit was added so that the bell did not stop ringing without being manually reset. Zoned systems were introduced and were often housed in ornate wooden boxes along with the alarm bell. Annunciating devices, which could double as a maid call device were also offered. In his 1918 publication, A Wonderful Fifty Years, Edwin T. Holmes, the elder Holmes’ son, recalled how his father devised a method of insulating wire using paint and cotton thread. In an 1896 court testimony Holmes reveals that he learned this technique from Charles Williams; nonetheless, it demonstrates the ingenuity Holmes possessed when faced with problems we never even consider today. Installation techniques also evolved. Holmes advertised that all house wiring remained concealed, so Holmes’ technicians learned to skillfully cut grooves in wooden floors beneath carpeting to run their wires. The modern burglar alarm had arrived; not just on the pages of a patent drawing, but in a viable and profitable business. The best was yet to come.
Holmes expanded his business to other cities, establishes central station monitoring and profoundly impacts the implementation of a switched telephone network throughout the United States.
John G. Fischer
Affiliated Monitoring, Inc.
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