Safety. It’s a small word, four consonants, only one vowel, but the concept it conveys is monumental. It means peace, tranquility, the certainty of not having to fear for the well-being of our belongings, family, savings, etc.
For as long as there have been possessions, there have been people trying to get a hold of them, the easy way, by taking them when the owners are unaware. Along the years, humankind has developed countless methods of countering the ever growing wits of thieves, coming up with devices and artifacts which get more complex and intricate, evolving constantly, in order to provide that feeling of having nothing to fear: safety.
Out of all human inventions that we use regularly, there is one we often tend to overlook, a mechanical wonder that makes sure your school bag, suitcase or your home, remain untouched when left unwatched: the lock. Locks and keys have existed for thousands of years, constantly changing, more so in modern times, when some of them have even changed from mechanic to electronic, from individual, to integrated.
The most primitive locking devices were found by archaeologists around 1950 in what we now know as Iraq, at the Palace of Khorsabad, such key and lock artifact was built around 4000 B.C., in the Mesopotamian kingdom of Assyria, with an underlying principle that was very similar to current-day locks.
It’s called pin lock. It’s essentially a set of pins, of different lengths, located on the inside of the mechanism, which stopped the door from opening, except when its matching key was inserted.
In times before this invention, the only way of keeping doors safe was by placing guards to watch them, imagine how important and convenient such invention was.
The Egyptians took the Mesopotamian original design and improved it, making the use of lock and key popular in the architectural aspect. Despite still being mostly made of wood, the Egyptians implemented the use of brass as material for the construction of the pins.
Although times have changed and human inventions have evolved, the basic key-and-pen standard has stuck and seems to be here to stay for quite some time. Its use extended from Egypt to Greece, finally reaching the Roman Empire, where it suffered adaptations, giving way to smaller locks that could secure drawers and chests. Wealthy Romans apparently used to wear keys like rings, as a way of showing others that they owned things valuable enough to demand protection.
The primitive design mostly made out of wood stayed the same until the Middle Ages, as English craftsmen changed the game, building the first locks made out of metal. These designs are characterized by having a keyhole with a cylinder on the far end. On the inside, a series of plates (wards) blocked the key from turning unless the pattern of the wards would match the pattern of the notches. In the case the key turned without resistance, the bolt, when turned, would be engaged or disengaged.
In this day and age, warded locks are still used, although mostly at historic sites, guarding precincts from thieves, as they have done for ages. The keys are largely known by their shape and widely recognized by those who love castles or secret societies.
But all designs have flaws. The implemented design of wards and notches could only prevent one key from opening a lock other than its own. With a twist of wits, the notches of the key could be arranged to elude all the wards, thus creating a skeleton key. In this sense, such key would become one big notch, able to turn freely past any given disposition of wards. It became of great use for lords who wished to unlock all doors in their castles, without carrying heavy sets of keys with them. Thieves, on the other hand, found skeleton keys just as useful, with different purposes.
Although it is true that these locks were far from perfect, they paved the way for a new age of artistry. Accomplished metalworkers were hired as locksmiths, creating new designs that reflected the artistic mood of the times and matched their architectural designs. Locksmiths began changing keyhole shapes and making wards more complex, in order to increase the level of security. But the effectiveness and complexity of skeleton keys were upgraded at the same pace. When the Renaissance reached its end, plenty of designs appeared, making lock-picking an art in itself. The urge for creating an unpickable lock became a priority.
With the coming of the Industrial Age, the game changed and evolved. New sophisticated locks placed the English as security experts. In 1778, Robert Barron introduced a double-acting lever tumbler lock. It was not perfect, though, the right person, equipped with the necessary tools could pick it, although it posed a bigger challenge than previous designs.
In 1784, Joseph Bramah, introduced a high security lock that, to this day, continues to be manufactured in London, preserving its original design. That design stayed unpicked until Alfred C. Hobbs, an American locksmith succeeded to open it in 1851, after attempting for 51 hours.
Bramah’s design, far from deterring others, thrusted innovation in people like Jeremiah Chubb who, in 1817, took Barron’s design to another level, remaining unbeatable until, once again, Alfred C. Hobbs pulled off the feat of cracking it.
Even prior to Hobbs accomplishment in 1851, in the United States, security had long been taking big steps towards the future. Linus Yale Sr. presented his own pin and tumbler lock, which we now know as the Yale Lock.
With the arrival of the twentieth century, in 1909, more precisely, a world of opportunities was opened, with the introduction of a lock that could do more than just opening and closing, as Walter Schlage registered a lock that was able to turn the lights on and off. Schlage would continue to create the cylindrical pin-tumbler lock with a mechanism that featured a push-button. Schlage’s company is still one of the largest lock manufacturers worldwide.