Locksmithing is among the oldest professions in the world. It is thought to have started around 4,000 years ago in Babylon and Ancient Egypt. It is commonly believed that the very first locks were portable and small and were used for protecting thieves that were so prevalent along the ancient travel routes. However, that is not true.
Back then locks were less sophisticated then they are today. A majority of locks were made out of wood, crude and large. However, they worked and were used in the same ways that the locks of today are. The locks had pins in them, but a cumbersome large wooden key had to be used to move them (picture something resembling a big wooden toothbrush).
The giant key gets inserted inside the lock and then was pushed up. Lock and key technology continued to spread, making its way to Rome, ancient Greece, and other cultures like China in the east.
Wealthy Romans frequently locked up their valuables and wore keys on their fingers like rings. It not only had the advantage of having the key in their possession at all times but also was a display of wealth and status. It showed that the person was important and wealthy enough to have valuables that were worth protecting.
The oldest lock on record was discovered in Assyrian Empire ruins in Khorsabad city. The key is thought to have been made around 704 BC and operates and looks like the time’s wooden locks.
Moving To Metal
Locks remained mostly unchanged until about 870-900 AD. At that time the first metal locks began to appear. They were basic iron bolt locks made by English craftsmen.
Locks were soon made out of brass or iron and found all across Europe and even as far away as China. Keys operated the locks that could be pushed, screwed or turned.
As the locksmithing profession continued to developed, locksmiths turned into talented metal workers. An increase in artistic achievements from locksmiths was seen during the 14th through the 17th century. They were frequently invited to make locks with beautiful and intricate designs for the nobility. They frequently would design locks that were inspired by royal symbols and crests.
However, although there were developments in the aesthetics of keys and locks, there were not many improvements made to the actual lock mechanisms. During the 18th century, with the advancements made in metal works, locksmiths were finally able to create more secure and durable keys and locks.
The Modern Lock Evolves
For centuries, the basic design of the way a key and lock worked remained relatively unchanged. During the 18th century, with the ushering in of the industrial revolution, the precision in component standardization and engineer significantly increased the sophistication and complexity of keys and locks.
The lever tumbler lock was perfected by Robert Barron in 1778. In order for this new tumbler lock to unlock, the lever needed to be lifted up to a certain height. It wasn’t as bad to lift the lever too far as it as to not lift it far enough. That made it more secure and is still used today against intruders.
After a burglary took place in 1817 in Portsmouth Dockyard, a competition was created by the British Government to make a more superior lock. Jeremiah Chubb won the competition with his Chubb detector lock. The lock was not only hard to be picked by people, but it also gave the lock’s owner an indication if it was tampered with. The competition was won by Chubb after a lock picker was unable to open it in 3 months.
Three years later, the brothers Jeremiah and Charles Chubb started their lock company called Chubb. They made significant improvements to standard key and lock systems over the following couple of decades. It included the use of six levers rather than the standard four. The Chubbs also included a disc that let the key pass through but made it hard for a lock picker to be able to see the lock’s internal levers.
The lock designs from the Chubb brother were based on using movable internal levels. An alternative method was created in 1784 by Joseph Bramah. With his locks, a round key that had notches along its surface was used. The notches moved metal slides that interfered with the lock opening. After the metal slides were moved to a specific position by the key notches, the lock would open. It was believed to be unpickable at the time.
The double acting pin tumbler lock represented another major improvement. In 1805 the first patent for the design was granted. However, Linus Yale invented the modern version in 1848 (that is still used today). The lock design by Yale used pins of various lengths that would prevent the lock from being opened unless the correct key was used. In 1861 Yale invented a flatter, smaller key that had serrated edges on it that moved the pins. Both of the Yale locks and key designs are still being used today.
Aside from minor key design improvements and the advent of electronic chips, a majority of today’s locks are still variants of those designs that were created by Yale, Bramah, and Chubb.
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