Illustration depicting a new anti-robbery device in the April 1923 issue of Science and Invention magazine.


Illustration depicting a new anti-robbery device in the April 1923 issue of Science and Invention magazine.
Picture: Novak Archive


Imagine you are a bank clerk with a gun pointed at your head. What do you do? If you are smart, you will give the robber all the money he wants. But if you are an inventor from 1923, you have a much better idea. You press a button, cause an explosion that can be heard for miles and release a powerful gas in the bank that unconsciously knocks the robber down.

At least that was the idea behind an illustration that appeared in the April 1923 issue. Science and Invention magazine. The painting was accompanied by an article entitled “Gassing the Thieves” describing the device and referring to the terrible trench warfare of the First World War, a conflict that has been going on for almost several years in the rearview mirror.

Article in Science and InventionAttributed to Eric A. Dime, he noted that this invention was the work of the American Joseph Menchen Jr., who advised the British War Office in the early years of the First World War before the United States joined the Allies in 1917.

Developing a flamethrower for the British in 1915, Menchen had the idea that he named the Pyrotechnic-Aspyhxiation-Burglar Alarm, or PAB Alarm for short, and Hugo Gernsback. Science and Invention magazine seemed very happy to introduce him.

As he explained in Dime magazine:

Shocked, gassed, marked, deaf and possibly stuck are the surprises waiting for the thief trying to activate his latest burglar alarm. It seems as if the enemy of society found himself in a kind of “No Man’s Land” during the war, while dealing with his precarious “trade” of entering buildings in search of loot. Indeed, if he tries to rob a house protected by the PAB Alarm, he exposes himself to some war conditions. In other words, this is the Pyrotechnic-Sultry-Thief Alert and peacetime application of some of the weapons of war used by armies in conflict during the late European struggle.

There is a long history of wartime inventions that have gone into productive use in peacetime in the United States, but the popular American imagination of the 21st century is mostly World War II.

It’s pretty shocking to see the people of the 1920s talking about bringing something positive from the First World War, let alone addressing the potential benefits of poison gas – especially when you remember that an estimated 500,000 soldiers were injured and about 30,000 died horribly from chemicals weapons during the First World War.


This Anti-Theft Device from 1923 was Inspired by the Terrible Gas War of the First World War


Picture: Novak Archive

Still, Menchen seemed to think these poisons were a smart use to stuff a bank with them so they could neutralize a potential robber. As the magazine explains, a cartridge-carrying device can be placed in a doorway and activated in a variety of ways to create a loud banging sound that can be heard five miles away.

The noisy explosion of the cartridge was designed to stun the thief’s ears, but the thief really had to be knocked unconscious by the device’s second feature: a metal cylinder that could release the gas.

From the magazine:

Part of the alarm is a metal cylinder containing a powder that produces a deactivating gas, and this gas is produced as soon as the cartridge is depleted. The gas immediately fills the room where it remains like a heavy yellow fog for about three hours.


The magazine insists that such gas would not cause any “permanent injury”, but “gives a feeling of tears and suffocation”. No specific type of gas was identified, but the gases used in World War I ranged from the less lethal tear gas to more lethal chemical weapons such as chlorine and mustard gas.

As you can see from the picture, one possible way to disperse the anonymous gas is for the bank clerk to push a large board at his feet. What happens if the teller accidentally hits the board when a gun is in his face while serving a client? And how do you prevent the gas from being inhaled by the teller? These are just two of a dozen possible reasons why I couldn’t find someone who actually installed this invention in their banks in the 1920s.

The article does not specify how to keep the bank teller safe, but in the picture there is a hint that some kind of door will slide down to protect the bank teller from poison gas. Can you do this quickly with a gun to your head? Again, we don’t bet our lives on this.


This 1923 Anti-Theft Device was Inspired by the Terrible Gas War of the First World War


Picture: Novak Archive

There were a number of different crime-fighting devices in the 1920s attempting to utilize battery and electrical technology that developed relatively quickly after World War I. 1923 radio pointer This was supposed to alert the authorities when you thought someone was useless – an idea that used emerging radio technologies to describe the 1920s. Was there 1927 shock hour this was supposed to be something like an eraser for your wrist, powered by a relatively gigantic battery. And there was a lot first breath metersIt was invented in the 1920s.

Wherever there are people, a lot of crime has to be committed. Some technologies developed to combat criminal activities are more ethical than others. The first pass metal detectors weren’t even meant to keep crime away from a sensitive area. Metal detectors, those working in Germany in the 1920s carrying metal parts home.

Nobody likes their property stolen, but there is always a balance when crime-fighting technologies are developed to neutralize a thief. In that case, you didn’t even need to have a lot of sympathy for the thief to perform a gas defense, it would probably be a bad idea for everyone.