Atlas Obscura

The Places that Protect Knowledge, Gold, and Nukes

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In today’s global tour of carefully guarded collections, we focus on knowledge, nukes, and gold. Here’s where to find all three under lock and key.

Medieval knowledge
In the Middle Ages, before the invention of the printing press, a collection of 150 books constituted a major library. Each hand-transcribed volumes on law and religion was unique, irreplaceable and highly valuable. To prevent against theft, librarians would chain books to their shelves. The chained library at Hereford Cathedral, established in 1611, contains 1,500 rare books, including 229 medieval manuscripts.

A bookcase at Hereford Cathedral.

Cold War nukes
Among the indelible, Hollywood-enhanced images of the Cold War era is that of two tense officers locking eyes as each turns the ignition key that launches the world-ending nuke.

At the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona, you can participate in a version of this two-person apocalypse-inducing process. The museum is a former subterranean missile site, decommissioned in 1982. Its silo still contains a Titan II missile, but with the lethal bits removed.

The Titan II launch process began with a 35-character alphanumeric message from the President. The commander and officer at the launch center each copied down the message, then conferred with one another to make sure the codes were identical.

It was then time to open the Emergency War Order (EWO) safe, which contained authenticator cards used to confirm that the message did indeed come from the President. Also in the safe: two launch keys, which the commander and officer would insert simultaneously at separate control stations.

Once the keys had been turned, there was no going back: 58 seconds later, the missile would be on its way to the pre-programmed target. Launch crews never knew the targets — it’s easier to fire a nuclear missile when you don’t know who it will kill.

Global gold
At 33 Liberty Street in Manhattan, 80 feet underground, is the gold vault of New York’s Federal Reserve Bank. Inside the vault’s 122 compartments are over 500,000 gold bars, none of which belong to the New York Fed. The bank acts as a gold custodian for its account holders, which include the U.S. government, foreign governments, and international banks. (No individual customers, if you please — you must be a big-shot financial entity or government to store your bullion here.) 

The entrance to the gold vault is secured by a 90-ton, nine-foot-tall steel cylinder. When closed, the vault is airtight, watertight, and protected by time locks which prevent entry until the next business day.

You can see the gold vault during a tour of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

A time lock at the John M. Mossman Lock Collection.

Want to know more about time locks and antique bank vault security mechanisms? Join Atlas Obscura at the John M. Mossman Lock Collection, located in the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in midtown New York. On the evening of Friday, March 28, we’ll be hosting a cocktails-and-lockpicking party, featuring an open bar, live music, and lockpick kits for all. 

Also under lock and key: