Black Excellence

28 DOBE- Day 17: Marie Van Brittan Brown, Keeping You Safe At Home

Marie Van Brittan Brown, black inventors, black history, black history month, black excellence, women inventors
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28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

 [/vc_column_text][vc_separator color=”green” border_width=”3″][vc_column_text]Rarely do we give credence to the people who first helped us feel safe. And that happens in a society where time moves so fast, we use the term “that’s so last year,” as a euphemism for being out of the current zeitgeist. The Ancients were smart enough often come up with solutions for problems that have plagued mankind for generations. That includes protecting one’s domain from predators, like wildcats, or intruders and thieves, like grave robbers and the local neighborhood toughs run amok.

A woman named Marie Brown felt uneasy in her neighborhood. A peephole was the only solution the police gave her. She took matters into her own hands and revolutionized everything we thought we knew about safety in the home. But we can’t get started with her story…not just yet.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, household burglaries in the United States have declined by 56 percent from 1994 to 2011. It’s believed that residential security systems are partly responsible for this decline. Burglars are less likely to break into a home that’s secured with an alarm system. If a secured house is invaded, an audible alarm system will often scare off the criminals and stop them in their tracks. Technological developments have made today’s home alarm systems ultra-modern, high-tech gadgets. To understand how these developments came about, it’s worth exploring the history of home security.

Alarms to protect the home, as we know them today, weren’t present during the Stone Age. Cavemen used other means of protection to keep predators at bay. Initially, they used branches and rocks, and later on they created slingshots, and bows and arrows. As time progressed, domesticated wolves were used to protect homes. People would rescue abandoned wolf cubs and raise them to protect their possessions. Eventually, this lead to the guard dogs we know today. In ancient Egypt, around 3150 BC, people would dig trenches around their dwellings, towns, and fortresses. These trenches, also known as moats, were filled with water and used to protect the people from intruders. With the growth of businesses and business ownership during the mid-1700s, people started using security guards to protect their properties. The royals also used security guards for their personal protection. Today, the human touch is still used to offer protection.

Baolis, or a series of steps that lead to a drinking source, were first used in India about 500 years ago, To use a baoli, people need to take a series of steps down to the well where water can be drawn. Obviously, with a warm climate such as that in India, this area is much cooler and baolis quickly became congregation spots during hot Indian summers. What has this got to do with home security? The baoli would have been enormously important to any large residence (usually palaces reserved for royalty), and the need to be protected paramount. The baoli at the Muslim temple in Lucknow was designed so that people near the water could see the elevated entrance to the well. Check out the picture below:

The well water basically serves to reflect the entrance to the baoli. The setup is impressive, if a little confusing but it worked. The well at Lucknow is still potable and safe for human consumption.

In the history of home security, there a few developments pivotal to the creation of the lock. While other civilizations had created locks, or lock-like mechanisms, long before, the Romans took the concept to new, revolutionary heights. Along with door locks, excavations of Roman ruins have found strongboxes and safety deposit boxes with tumbler locks and padlocks. The earliest known examples of these locks date back to over 2,000 years.

Humans have been worrying about defending their homes since the advent of agriculture. The Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, and Romans each had their own approach to home security but few took it to the same level that Europeans did during the Dark Ages. And just as there were ever evolving forms of defense, there were also forms of offense, or siege, such as the Chinese-born, but French-named trebuchet, a mechanism closely related to the catapult, which was created in 300 BC.

RELATED: The Inventive Sarah E. Goode

Following the fall of Rome, Europe quickly collapsed into disaster, and new rulers fought for their share of the once-great empire. To defend their new kingdoms, these rulers would build massive fortifications, known as castles, that could withstand months of steady attacks, sometimes even years, on end. Several of the more innovative developments crafted by these paranoid Europeans include towers designed for defense and double-defended gates that could snare intruders, trapping them inside, open to an onslaught of brutality—certain-death by the defending occupants of the castle. Of course, security measures during medieval times were unparalleled in their viciousness, and modern-day methods would be put to shame, simply because we have gained a much more humane treatment for even the vilest of thieves and robbers. Castles protected kings and peasants alike for over 800 years but they proved little use against newer technologies, such as cannons. If you were lucky enough to have one of these lying around today, it would do little good to keep out master intruders, but it’d still be pretty cool.

One of the alarm systems that closely resemble home security alarms today was the electromagnetic alarm in the mid-1800s. This alarm was used by wealthy people to secure their possessions. Electromagnetic sensors were place in doors and windows, and when an intruder crossed them, they would set off a loud alarm and scare off the intruder.

It wasn’t until after World War I that Americans really started prioritizing safety and protection. People started using the services of door shakers. If you paid for this service, a guard would “shake” your door handle at nighttime, to make sure that it was locked.

The modern burglary system is a relatively recent development in human history but the first designs go back further than most people realize. Credit for the first modern, patented home alarm system goes to Augustus Pope in 1853. Pope’s simple alarm used an electrical circuit rigged to a bell to sound an alarm whenever a door or window was opened. Of course, the problem with Pope’s design was that the alarm would stop once the opened door or window was closed. Pope sold his patent to Edwin Holmes who is now known as “The Father of the Modern Security Industry”. Holmes obtained the patent for a total of $9800 in 1858, which is worth about $250,000 in 2012. Pope died shortly after selling his patent but he left an indelible mark on home security.

The modern burglar alarm was just one half of the modern home security system; the revolution had yet to be monitored. E.A. Calahan was responsible for the first monitored fire and burglar alarms in 1871. His system used telegraph signals and was ahead of its time, going so far as to develop the central monitoring station to keep track of alarms. Calahan was a prolific inventor during his life time. His creations include the stock ticker, ticker tape, and the multiplex telegraph system. Today, security monitoring is accomplished through landline phone, cellular, or broadband internet connections. Though the technology may have changed, Calahan’s basic model for central monitoring stations is still in place today.

And, after such a long journey, we thusly, come to our superstar. Some home security devices are strange and a little humorous. It’s easy to imagine people thinking the same thing of Marie Brown’s visual security system when it debuted in 1966. To be fair, Brown’s invention was a little unwieldy and expensive. However, she did create the first CCTV surveillance system. Brown’s version used a series of peep holes and a mechanized track to keep the camera hidden. Though the device proved to be commercially unsuccessful, Brown was widely recognized for her achievement.

Marie Van Brittan Brown was born in Queens, New York on October 30, 1922, and she died there February 2, 1999. But her invention is everlasting.

Ms. Brown was a 43 year-old nurse living in Jamaica, Queens. Her nursing duties saw her coming home late into the night. Her husband was away many nights as an electronics engineer. Because of the high-crime area, Ms. Brown found it extremely difficult to find sleep some nights, and was filled with fear, like any of us would.

Police told her to get a peephole, but she knew that’s a good way to get your door kicked back into your face, freeing a perpetrator to ransack your home.

So, in 1966, with the help of her husband, she created what would become the first home security system. It had a sophisticated audio and camera system, so she wouldn’t even have to leave her living room, thus avoiding what might potentially be a death sentence by showing intruders she was home through the looking glass of the peephole.

The device had a remote-controlled monitor and audio device, so one could speak to the person outside, and vice versa.

Ingenuity mandated that she build four peepholes at different heights. Because some would-be thieves can be children. You could use a remote control to communicate with the person outside via microphone, remotely unlock the door if you wanted to let them in, or sound an alarm to call for help.

A patent came in 1969. And she and her husband were also honored by the National Science Committee. It’s hard to say if the couple received proper compensation, or any compensation at all for this monumental invention. What can be said is that a world of invention has opened up because of these designs. At least 13 other people have piggybacked off of her original design. Over 100 million houses across America have closed-circuit home security systems. And if you have one, you now know who to thank and how lucky you are!

Today’s home security systems are either linked to a landline, or cellular or broadband connection. When the alarm is set off, any one of these three systems can communicate with the monitoring center. If you don’t turn off the alarm within a certain period, the center will call you to inquire about the alarm. If it’s a false alarm, you must provide your password to stop all further action. If no password is given, or if you don’t respond to the call, the police will be sent over to your resident to ensure that there’s no burglary taking place. Some home alarm systems can be controlled through your cell phone or tablet. In addition to arming and disarming the alarm system, mobile access to your alarm system can come with other features. You can, for instance, unlock and lock doors, turn the lights on or off, set the thermostat, and more. You can also install a security system with cameras that record every action that occurs on your property. This type of security is often used by business owners. Also, if you’re renting a home, or if you plan on moving in a few years, you can install a wireless alarm. This allows you to take your alarm system with you when you move. Some other features that are available when it comes to home security include a glass break sensor, smoke detectors, flood sensors, and carbon monoxide and motion detectors.

Next-gen, or, current-gen (depending on how you look at it), home systems are out of this world. Biometric scanners, floor monitors, lasers, etc. Just about everything you’d see in the most recent spy film is possible now, or will become plausible in the near future. Check out some of these ridiculously good-looking (super expensive) home security systems. And trust me, there worth a gander, as some of these systems are set to be fully stocked and provide enough sustenance for a group or family for three generations!  And it was a long time coming, but this modern-day security setup, would not have been possible if it weren’t for one special black lady in Queens, 50 years ago. She is the most pivotal piece in this millennia long puzzle of protecting ones own home and property. We salute you, Mrs. Brown.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.