If you have been reading my previous articles, you know that my father was the part-owner of a local bank many years ago. On occasion, whenever I would accompany him to the bank as a young boy, I was always fascinated by that big vault door. I would just stand next to the open door and study the lock workings through the glass panel on the back of the door. 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.
One decision, a gold and silver investor has to make, is where to keep the darn stuff. There are several options for investing in gold and silver. You can put it 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, etc. The list is almost endless. I believe that maybe the best thing is to do them all. If you are investing for security, however, there is nothing like a little gold and silver at home in a safe where you can always get to it regardless of what happens. I am not talking about large portions of metals stored at home, but just think of what you have stored in your garage in rolling stock. Most people do not think twice about leaving their ,000 car outside in the driveway. You simply take reasonable precautions with a reasonable amount. Beyond that you move onto other investing venues.
In the past, they made safes massive because they locked up "real money". Take an afternoon and visit your local used safe dealer in your town. Stay away from the new safes at retail outlets. You can buy a "bank" quality used safe very reasonably 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. If you decide to invest in a safe at home be careful how you set your combination. You say, "Don't be ridiculous!"... "Who would be so foolish as to not set a proper combination?"
I recently read a couple of books about Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, who helped to develop the atomic bomb during World War II at Los Alamos. It seems that Mr. Feynman was quite a hands on kind of guy who liked to tinker with different things for amusement. (He said there wasn't much else for amusement those days in Los Alamos after work.) When they started work, they all 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. After a short while, new safe cabinets were ordered that had three disk Mosler combination locks on them. Feynman, who loved puzzles, took his lock apart one night in his office and saw how it worked. He figured out that there were 1,000,000 different possible combinations with three disks at 100 numbers each (100 to the third power). He tinkered for a while and found out that two numbers either way would still work. This reduced the number of combinations to 8,000 possibilities (twenty to the third power). Through experimentation, he found out that if a file cabinet was unlocked, you could turn the dial carefully while applying pressure to the throw and pick up the last two numbers of the combination. This only left the first number of the combination or twenty different possibilities to open the cabinet!
Feynman carefully recorded the last two numbers of everyone's "secure" file cabinet while he was in their office during his work. People just thought that casually spinning the dial on their open safe was a nervous habit of his. Pretty soon word got out that he could "crack open" the secure file cabinets. Whenever a document was needed and someone was on leave, they would ask him to open the safe. He would gather a few tools, check his list of numbers and then lock himself in the office, open the safe in a couple of minutes and read a book for another few hours before opening the office and declaring the safe opened.
Feynman tried to learn how to really open safes and read several books on the subject. They all usually digressed to hints on human nature, such as birthdays, dates, written numbers on the bottom or top of the secretary's phone list or the top edge of her desk drawer, etc. In one instance, he was trying to gain entry into the secret documents library on a Saturday, only to find out it was closed. One of his friends was in charge of declassifying documents and had copies of all the documents in nine secure file cabinets in his office. Feynman did not have a clue what the last two numbers for any of those safes were so he fell back to the old human nature tricks. 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 list? Sure enough that was not only the combination to the first cabinet, but all nine were the same. His friend almost lost it, when he found Feynman's cryptic notes in his cabinets saying, "He should be more careful with his country's most valuable secrets".
My favorite safecracking adventure of the world famous physicist was an occasion when after the war, they were selling some surplus equipment at Los Alamos. One Captain had ordered an expensive safe for his office because he was anticipating much larger secrets than the others. The Captain had moved on, but his safe had to be opened before it could be sold to make sure there was nothing left inside.
Feynman had heard that the new locksmith had been called up to drill the safe. He naturally didn't want to miss this, 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 genius in the maintenance department and set about trying to casually meet him. After weeks of casually walking by his shop and waving, then talking and finally having lunch together in the shop, Feynman finally revealed his secret of picking off the last two combination numbers from an open safe. The locksmith had never heard of it and was very impressed. Finally, Feynman asked him how he opened the Captain's safe and the old locksmith confessed. He told him that his supervisor had ordered him to drill the safe. He didn't have a clue how to drill a safe, but it was a good job so he loaded a drill and some bits in a bag and headed off in that direction. He figured he would put on a good show and drill into the door and then come up with some kind of excuse why it wouldn't open later.
The old locksmith had worked in a safe manufacturing facility years before and remembered that they set all the new safes with one of two combinations at the factory. They were supposed to be reset by the final owner upon installation of the safe. In desperation, he tried both of the factory settings and the safe opened! He simply reported that the job was done and went back to his shop relieved that he wouldn't be fired. Then, the old locksmith lowered his voice and told his new friend, "If you want to meet a real safecracker, find Richard Feynman." Feynman then introduced himself to the old locksmith, and they both had a good laugh. 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!
Buy a safe, be smart, and set your combination as random numbers.
From the book, "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman," as told to Ralph Leighton.
Larry LaBorde, Silver Trading Company