Categories: Locksmith

Lock and Key History

locks perthLocks have been around since man first decided he wanted to keep his belonging to himself, about 4,000 years according to evidence of the oldest lock, which was found in the ruins of an ancient Egyptian palace. Lock and key history dates back to a long time ago, but they haven’t changed much over time. Read below for even more Lock and key history!

Other extremely old examples of an early lock have been found in  locations around the world. Although greatly improved over the centuries, the design is recognizable as a pin number or lever lock, the forerunner of the cylinder lock is still commonly used today.

The first Egyptian lock was made up of a wooden bolt that secures a door, with a slot that had several holes on its upper surface. A device attached to the door contained wood pins that would drop into the holes and secure the bolt. The key, which was also wooden, was a large toothbrush-shaped item, whose “bristles” were pegs that specifically matched the holes and pins in the lock. To open the door, the device would be placed into the keyhole located below the pins and lifts. This allowed the pins to be raised, and allowed the bolt to be slid out.


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Locks and keys were used by the ancient Greeks, although in a somewhat different and less secure form than the Egyptians design.The Romans used the idea of the Egyptian lock, but rather than wood; they used iron for the lock and often bronze for the key. Keys were no longer too large to lose (or lift). Some roman keys were even small enough to wear on a finger. Roman locks were also an improvement on the Egyptian model. ‘Wards’ were developed – items inside the lock that demanded a corresponding ‘bit’ on the face of the key. Only the key that was an exact match would be able to turn and throw the bolt.

double locks perthAmazingly, locks barely changed over the next 1,700 years or so. Warded locks were rather easy to pick with the correct tool and some patience. Efforts were made more to confuse or discombobulate the lock picker rather than to re-design the lock. This means that keys were made incredibly complicated, and very ornate. Keyholes were obscured to lock pickers couldn’t easily locate them, and dummy keyholes were designed to waste the intruder’s time.

In 1778, Robert Barron created the double-acting tumbler lock. The tumbler falls into a slot in the bolt that would fall into a slot that yields only if the tumbler is lifted out of the slot at the exact height.

Barrons device was developed further in 1818 by Jeremiah Chubb, who incorporated a spring into the lock that would catch and hold any tumbler that may have been raised too high by a criminal. Not only did this add more security, it had also shown when the lock was tampered with.


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While Barron and Chubb were busy with levers, Joseph Bramah was going an entirely different route in lock development. His safety lock, patented in 1784 was a small metal tube with narrow slots cut into one end. When the key is pushed into the lock, slides are pushed into the slots. They all have to be exactly the right length, as determined by the slots, or the bolt couldn’t be thrown. Bramah was so convinced that his lock was inviolable; he put up a $300 reward (about a $400,000 in today’s money) for anyone who could pick it. More than 50 years later, the reward was claimed by an American locksmith.

The middle of the nineteenth century there was huge activity in lock development. It was all based largely off of Bramah’s cylinder lock or Barron as well as Chubb’s lever locks. Meanwhile,  in the US during 1848 Linus Yale, and later even his son, also named Linus, patented and  greatly improved the Yale compact cylinder lock, which was based loosely on the earliest pin-tumbler Egyptian model. Even today, the Yale lock is one of the most commonly used domestic locks.

lock and key perthLocks were not only engineered for the domestic market, and they didn’t always require a key to open them. Around the end of the nineteenth century, and with demand from frustrated banks and businesses threatened by criminals who only had to show firearms to get ahold of safe keys or combinations from scared staff, James Sargent created a lock that incorporated a clock which would only allow a safe to be opened by a pre-set time.

The combination lock originated in the 17th century, but by the 1870’s it was proving to be an incredibly useful security device for safes or vaults. The bolt mechanism can be released only when the proper series of numbers or letters are rotated on a dial outside of the lock. Each correct move of the dial lets an array of slots in rings threaded on a central spindle to line up, thus releasing the bolt.

Any good locksmith will tell you that if a thief wants something bad enough and has the time, resources, and knowledge to get it a lock won’t keep them out. Criminals thwarted by impressible locks looked for other ways to get inside a safe, and decided to blow the doors off the safe instead.


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To combat this, safe makers introduced a second series of bolts into the door. Any explosion will automatically bolt the door closed using  the locking device.

In spite of some phenomenal innovations in lock engineering, most locks that are used today are still based off of the Bramah, lever, Yale and combination models. Keys have progressed as well; some now open a lock using magnets rather than serrations. Master keys, although the may seem like it, are not magic. They are careful arrangements of wards, so a master key and be shaped to avoid the wards in locks it masters.


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