The soundtrack of my childhood

The decal that Samuel Reuben designed is beautiful. An eagle’s golden wings are proudly spread over a large, white circle bordered by a heavy, gold-link chain. Two taloned claws grasp different links at the top of the chain. Bolts of red lightning inside the circle are directed at the immortal words: Automatic House-Gard Fire and Burglar Alarm © 1948 by House-Gard Mfg. Co. Chicago 25, Ill. U.S. And Foreign Patents Pending.

Years ago, my husband framed one of those decals for me. Just recently, my brother Chuck made a bunch of them into magnets. Samuel Reuben’s burglar alarm just won’t go away. In the basement of our house, I have what is possibly the only remaining prototype of the Automatic House-Gard Fire and Burglar Alarm. I am so proud of it that I brag about my father’s invention to anybody I can trick into listening.

Recently, I showed it to a friend in law enforcement who installs listening devices and electronic surveillance systems for the C.I.A. He was awed, not only by the burglar alarm’s workability, but also by its portability, the low cost at which it could be manufactured, and the lack of any necessity to alter the design forty years after it was patented for it to be marketed effectively today.

Like the can opener, safety pin, zipper, or mouse trap, a design’s beauty is manifested by its simplicity.



Samuel Reuben’s fire and burglar alarm comes in a shoebox-sized metal carrying case. It has a little hinged handle that folds down for storage, and a small key with which the case can be locked. Inside, a copper grid extends from side-to-side like a second lid. Beneath this grid are a six-volt lantern battery, a bell, and the electric box that activates the bell when the alarm is triggered. The battery and the bell are connected by wires to a switch on top of the grid with which you can turn the alarm on or off. A lever pokes through the grid and extends to the bell and battery at the bottom of the case.

The alarm system is activated by spools of thread. One end of the thread is tied to a link which hooks onto the lever that triggers the alarm bell. The rest of the thread is pulled through eyehooks that extend across opened windows, closed doors, entrances to rooms, and any area you want to protect. If you are outside at a campsite, you can run the thread from tree-to-tree to safeguard yourself from grizzly bears, wolves, or psychopaths. If you want to sleep in the back of your Jeep, you can pull the thread across your car window, and leave it open on a hot and muggy night to catch an illusive breeze.

Any unwarranted intrusion will break the thread. This, in turn, releases the tension of the link pulling against the lever, and once the lever is released, the alarm goes off.

A burglar breaking the thread sets off the alarm.

A fire burning through the thread sets off the alarm.

Boyfriends visiting in the middle of the afternoon set off the alarm.

Brothers careening down the stairs on their way to school set off the alarm.

A father delighting at his own ingenuity would, could, and consistently did set off the alarm.

I don’t know if my father’s burglar alarm was his best work, the work of which he was most proud, or the crowning achievement of his life. I do know that when I was growing up, it was the most fun.

The soundtrack of my childhood was punctuated by very loud and very shrill bells.

“Sam stop fiddling with the alarm! Your food will get cold.”

“Daddy, it’s an obstacle course in here. How do you expect me to get across the room?”

“Yeek! What’s that horrible sound?”

“You just tripped my father’s burglar alarm!”

To Samuel Reuben’s everlasting woe, we lived in a safe neighborhood. No burglar ever crawled through our window to steal his violin. No errant ember ever leapt from the fireplace to menace us with flames. Nor did floods, coyotes or giant yettis trip the thread that would have caused the alarm to go off. In fact, it never went off without conscientious provocation and meticulous preparation.

When I moved to New York City, I brought a House-Gard Fire and Burglar Alarm with me. I strung the threads across the unprotected windows of my apartments, first on East 90th Street, and then on York Avenue. Whenever I was afraid, I made a Jacob’s ladder of string from entrance doors to windows to halls, secure in the knowledge that if a robber or rapist attempted entry, it would scare the hell out of the son of a bitch.

Samuel Reuben’s burglar alarm gave me a sense of security, not just because it is a unique and ingenious device, but because over the years it has come to signify and embody certain inextricable aspects of my father’s soul.

Like him, it existed to preserve, protect, and cherish his children … his chickadees.

Somewhere in the universe there may be a man who loves and enjoys his children as much as Samuel Reuben did his, but there could never, never be one who loved and enjoyed them more.

Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com

Copyright © 2009, Shelly Reuben.

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