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By Selina Hurley on

Burglars Beware….

This blog was written by Jared Keller, a part-time Explainer.

With so many visitors flying in from abroad, security has been a hot-button issue in the capital all summer. So much so that we here at the Science Museum thought we should offer our expertise and services to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. So we’re proud to offer this  – a 1930s “Burgot” Burglar and Fire Alarm.


Burgot Burglar and Fire Alarm, c. 1939 ( Science Museum / Science & Society )

This wonder of mechanical ingenuity combines a gramophone, rotary telephone, and closed electric circuit into one of the world’s first automated burglar/fire alarms. If tripped, this machine would mechanically dial an emergency number, and play a (quite posh) pre-recorded message alerting the authorities to the situation – a video of which can be seen here (fast forward to 7:20).

Similar devices were also widely deployed as silent alarms in banks and other high security buildings. The unit was placed in a back room and connected to a foot trigger underneath the front desk. That way a clerk could alert the authorities even while the burglars thought they had the situation under control. The illustrations imagining the scenes are courtesy of Matteo Farinella, Neuroscience PhD at UCL, and science comic extraordinaire!
With a Burgot Alarm, bank clerks could silently signal the police and then confidently wait for help to arrive (Credit: Matteo Farinella)
A journalist for the Spokane Daily Chronicle took special joy in one particular use of the Burgot when he wrote,

“armed robbers that enter a bank and ‘cover’ the cashiers with revolvers preparatory to gathering up the money, may find that they are not as secure from attack as the submissive men in front of them would indicate”.

Though it may appear rather quaint and low-tech to our twenty-first century eyes, an article in The Age reported that similar devices accounted for 67 arrests in Yorkshire in 1955 alone!

Police answering a call from a Burgot Alarm ( Credit: Matteo Farinella )

And lest you think this wonderful device could be outsmarted by simply cutting the power to the premises, the developers of the Burgot alarm system even had the foresight to wire in each device with its own power source hidden deep within the building. As the 1938 issue of Gramophone Magazine waxed,

“even as the burglar fondly imagines he has cut all communications with the outside world, the treacherous voice of our mechanical informer is summoning swift retribution. Who would be a burglar?”

Indeed. With things like the Burgot around, who would be a burglar?!