Friday, February 20, 2015
Auto Theft Alarm Systems: a Brief History
Raising an Alarm
The wave of auto thefts in the early 1970s and the failure of manufacturers to make products that were secure resulted in the rising popularity of aftermarket security alarms. A wide variety of security alarm devices were available for virtually every make and model of car, ranging in price from about $30 for owner-installed devices to about $130 per unit for seller- or factory-installed devices. In general, a security alarm system consisted of a control unit, a set of sensors that might include pin switches installed at a door, trunk, and hood; a motion sensor; a switch to cut off the starter motor; and a siren or horn to indicate an attempted theft. More elaborate designs involved current draw, wheel rotation, or ultrasonic detectors.
Electronic alarms were not new to the 1970s. The technology occupied inventors as soon as they thought that a solution to the problem was technologically feasible. For example, a June 20, 1920 article in Popular Mechanics reported that a loud alarm was devised by a Nebraska inventor that:
. . . utilizes the drive-shaft to operate its own bell or horn signal when the car is improperly moved. A friction gear, thrown into or out of engagement with the shaft by a cam, is enclosed with the alarm in a riveted steel case, fixed to the shaft housing and radius rods. The cam also short-circuits the magneto, so that turning the key in the lock stops the engine and sets the alarm. The lock is located in the floor of the driving compartment.53
The mass market auto theft alarm, however, only appeared after considerable development and miniaturization made possible after the introduction of solid-state electronics. The post-World War II design of automobile alarms began with Victor Helman’s “Automatic Burglar Alarm” patented in 1954. Helman, from Cleveland, Ohio, developed a technological system that included a secure, re-settable control box that was connected to a number of switches securing doors, hood, and trunk. If unauthorized use was detected, two electromagnetic solenoids would trigger a current that energized a siren.54 Further technological improvements to the concept of a car alarm were developed later in the 1950s. For example, John Yurtz, also a Clevelander, came up with an automobile theft alarm that was based on a motion sensor. Two vibrators, placed in such a way that they were perpendicular to each other and thus could sense motion in two planes, would activate a horn “upon the slightest agitation of the vehicle.”55 In 1971 inventor Charles E. Davis solved the problem of battery drain, namely, the shortcoming of alarm systems that either would always be on or that would continue to sound off after activation.56
One auto alarm kit that was claimed to be so effective that “The only way your car can be stolen . . . is for the thief to pick it up bodily and carry it away” was the 1967 Auto Sentinel.57 For a modest $15, one could construct a device consisting of several relays, a switch, and a pair of resistors that would be triggered by mercury switches or existing door switches that were connected to the horn relay. For the would-be owner, all that was left to do once the Auto Sentinel was mounted and alarmed was to “relax;” in reality, all the thief had to do was to find the box and disconnect terminal 1!
Several years later, Radatron Corporation produced an auto alarm kit that was designed for beginners to construct, containing a 52 page instruction booklet that concluded with the question “What did you learn?” Employing a power transistor and a control box with five coded push buttons, the unit intermittently sounded the vehicles’ horn when triggered by any electrical signal. A deterrent at best, the manufacturer warned any would-be kit builder that it “does give protection but should not be expected to foil a professional car thief familiar with this type of alarm.”58 Do-it-yourself electronic alarm kits of that era also often included motion sensors based on a pendulum. Unlike a clock, though, the pendulum was designed to be still rather than to swing all the time. Hanging straight down, it made no contact and thus the alarm was silent. If someone opened a door or leaned on the car, however, the pendulum swung on the low side making an electric contact that resulted in sound.59 The weak point in all of these primitive alarm systems was simply the power source used to energize them. All a thief had to do was cut the battery cable to the car, and once that was done the alarm was dead.
Chrysler Corporation offered a more sophisticated system in 1973 that was certainly was aimed at deterring at least the marginally skilled professional thief. 60 Available on all full-sized Chrysler vehicles, the Chrysler Electronic Security Alarm System featured an integrated circuit electronic control box coupled to a series of sensors located in various areas of the car. When the sensor was tripped by a forced door, trunk, hood, or unauthorized start, a pulsing horn and flashing lights indicated that something was wrong. The Chrysler system also featured a panic button on the dash that automatically locked all doors, as well as energizing the horn and lights. The key to the door activated the system, and deactivated it as well. It was a system that reflected the concerns of a new age in American life, one in which unlocked doors and trusting glances were replaced with suspicion and fear. Further improvements to kits evolved during the late 1970s as electronics got better and better. Silicon-controlled rectifiers and integrated circuits could be combined in such ways as to design sequential digital code systems; unless all four numbers on a box were pressed properly, the alarm system was still alive. Yet, this too could be circumvented, as auto thieves often proved more ingenious than circuits.61
Factory-installed systems from the early 1970s were far from effective. In the case of the Corvette, for example, an alarm was installed beginning in 1972. It did little to stop the seasoned professional thief, however, as reflected in the Senate testimony of “X,” a specialist in stealing Corvettes between 1966 and 1977: “well, all Corvettes after 1972 have an alarm. I would walk up and look at the fender to see if the alarm was turned on, I would reach under the back, by the bumper, and pull the wire out of it. That is how easy it is to disconnect the alarm.”62
One popular device available during the 1970s and 1980s was sold by Chapman Security Systems of Elk Grove Village, Illinois. David Arlasky, the founder and president of Chapman Industries and the inventor of the CHAPMAN-LOK, was a former auto thief. According to a company brochure, Arlasky purportedly knew “all the tricks of the trade in car thievery. For almost two years, he was a car repossessor [sic] for Chicago Banks. He ‘stole’ nearly 2,000 automobiles and made enough money to put himself through college! ‘And professional car thieves make a good deal more than I did,’ he says about the motivation behind auto theft.”63 Technologically, the Chapman system consisted of a key-operated hood and ignition lock placed under the dash. Protected by a steel conduit that was strong enough to resist a bolt cutter, a wire was fed under the dashboard to the automobile’s distributor, while a cable activated a dead bolt lock firmly secured to the hood. Optional accessories included a flasher, panic button, horn honker, sonic sensor, and glass sensor.
Alarm systems deterred the joy rider, but not the professional auto thief, who had expertise in cutting the right wire, thus disabling the system. And by the late 1990s, their effectiveness was challenged by both the insurance industry and civic activists, who increasingly complained of false alarms. Statistics for 1997 tended to conclude that there was no difference in theft losses if a vehicle had or did not have an alarm system installed. Furthermore, critics cited the statistic that some 95 to 99 percent of alarms were false, supporting the notion that alarms merely degraded the urban environment. Finally, to reinforce the contention that alarms did little to reduce the crime of auto theft, the Progressive Insurance Company claimed that only 1 percent of citizens would call police if they heard an alarm.64