Locks are one of the important creations and innovations of human civilization. As we all know, there is a need for every innovation. Behind locks, it was a simple one; the need to keep the belongings safe. Locks haven’t always been mechanical (or electrical as we see them today). Our ancestors used knots made of simple rope or any other material as locks. The idea behind these early locks was just to detect if someone tried opening them. Those were the good, very old days but as the time went on, so did the human needs. Soon, more proper locks made up of woods and metals were introduced with an intention to prevent unwanted access to dear things.
There is an element of uncertainty as who developed the first mechanical locks but it was either Romans, Greeks or Egyptians. What we do know is the fact that first lock was made from wood nearly 6 thousand years ago. The lock was simple yet pretty effective. There was a wooden post attached to the door and a wooden bolt that was used to slide into the post. This bolt was actually crafted with sharp pins that made the locking mechanism complete. Special, heavy keys with a toothbrush like structure were specially designed to correspond with the pins in the lock to open it.
As with every invention, the improvement in locks was to come next. 1st millennia BC was the time when locksmiths started using different technologies to make the locks more secure. Greeks might have been the first one to introduce locks but Romans were the ones to innovate. Greek locks were considered a little insecure and that is where Romans got their opening. They were quick to introduce an all-metal design, which was more secure. This wind of innovation didn’t only provide protection against brute-force attacks but for the first time, the world saw smaller metal keys, easier to carry around.
The world politics play a major role in innovation and engineering. That is what happened with locks. After the fall of Roman Empire, all work being done in this field came to a standstill. The European dark ages did not have the resources to take things forward. However, locksmiths at that time were able to introduce new and complex keys, fake keyholes mechanism and more. The technology got a real push in the 18th century when some of the finest locks were created, amongst them double-acting tumbler lock, detector lock, and Bramah lock (which remained unpickable for more than 65 years) are only to name a few.
The great work done by these engineers is still being used lock manufacturers, so before we move on – A salute to all the hard work done by our ancestors!
The concept of locks is old but the first locks that resembled what we see today were first crafted in a city called Nineveh (present Egypt).
Have a look at the mechanism of ancient locks in the figure below
The design is pretty similar; the hockey shaped key is used to lift the pins up and unlock. The wealthy Romans always kept the keys with them. They would even wear it as ornaments, which was a status symbol – indicating that the person is wealthy enough to be needing a safe and locks.
It was the industrial revolution (the dawn of the 18th century) that made possible some great advancement in lock technology. The way business was done shifted from agriculture to factories and this allowed the use and testing of metal in the making of locks. In 1778, the first level-tumbler lock was invented by Robert Barron. This lock featured much-improved security by using levers to prevent the free movement of the bolt inside the lock. Top open the lock, a key was used to lift the lever to a specific height.
The modern tumbler lock that we use today was invented and patented by Linus Yale Sr. Yale was an American inventor & manufacturer and known as the inventor of modern-day tumbler locks. He specialized in making locks for the banks and had a small shop in the New Port village in New York. In 1850, his son, Yale Sr. joined his father’s business and began working on the improvement on his father’s work. Yale Sr. through his work, was able to craft much smaller keys with better locks combination.
Lock security got a major push in the year 1818 when a major burglary took place at Portsmouth Dockyard. The British Government was then eager to develop a secure, foolproof lock that was harder to break and could only be opened with its own keys. A competition was announced with 100 pounds as the prize money for anyone who could craft the best lock, security wise. Jeremiah Chubb, who was working with his brother as an ironmonger in Portsmouth invented a Chubb detector lock. This lock worked on the principals of tumbler lock but was much more advanced. The special feature of this lock was it would cease to operate if opened with a wrong key and would then only work if opened with a special key. Jeremiah called this feature “regulator”. A famous locksmith who had a reputation of opening every lock he was presented with was asked to open Chubb lock. After three months of trying, he couldn’t open the lock and the 100 pounds money was awarded to Jeremiah.
We could say that all the advancement in the modern locks that we see today have been the result of the earlier work done by Bramah, Yale, and Chubb.