What Did The World’s First Keys And Locks Look Like?
Security and access have long been an important aspect of human society, with the invention of keys and locks enabling us to control and manage access to our property and belongings. While locks and keys have changed over the thousands of years they’ve been around, they are still an integral part of our daily lives. Today, locks can be found on our front doors, safeboxes, and cars, with just about every person owning a set of keys.
The Ancient Era of Keys and Locks
The history of keys and locks dates back more than six thousand years ago, with the earliest known lock and key device found in the ruins of Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria (modern day Iraq and Syria). This lock was a wooden pin lock, an early predecessor of the pin-tumbler lock, where pins within the lock are lifted out of holes using a key, allowing the lock to move and open. The keys for these locks often looked like large wooden toothbrushes, with pegs corresponding to the pins that needed to be lifted in order to open the lock.
This style of wooden pin lock was commonly used in ancient Egypt to safeguard valuables and doors to places of religious significance, helping eliminate the need for stationed guards at doorways. Similar ancient have been found in various countries across the world, including in Japan, Norway, and the Faroe Islands. However, these early locks could be easily broken, were only able to be unlocked from one side of the door, and could often be opened using any standard key of the times.
The Roman Empire’s Improvements and Creation of the Warded Lock
As civilisation progressed, the Roman empire innovated on the original Egyptian lock to make it more secure and durable. They substituted wood materials for brass keys and iron locks, making locks significantly more resistant to being forced open and less vulnerable to erosion. Along with making locks more durable, the Romans invented wards (projections inside the lock that the key would have to allow to pass through by being a certain shape) in order to create the warded lock.
The warded lock was a groundbreaking technological advancement, as it required the corresponding key in order to open, no longer able to be unlocked by any key. Alongside the creation of warded locks, keys changed from the wooden toothbrush with pegs into the more recognisable skeleton keys that are sometimes still used today.
The Dark and Middle Ages of Locksmithing
While the Roman empire fell within a few hundred years, warded locks remained the standard for locksmithing for the next thousand years. Despite this, warded locks were quite easy to pick, and most of the dark and middle ages featured locksmiths complicating and making warded locks more difficult to open for thieves and lockpicks. These methods included multi-key mechanisms, more complex key design, and fake keyholes with dummy mechanisms inside, but no actual work was done on redesigning or creating a new locking mechanism.
A Renaissance of Lock Advancements
While the dark and middle ages did little to advance the mechanisms within locks, in the late 18th century Robert Barron and Joseph Bramah created new locking mechanisms. Barron patented a double-acting tumbler lock, which featured two levers which had to be lifted to different heights before the lock’s bolt could be withdrawn. This was later improved by Jeremiah Chubb in 1818, with a retaining spring that caught and held any tumbler which had been lifted too high. This mechanism both prevented the bolt from being withdrawn once activated, and signalled that someone had tried to pick the lock.
A few years after the original Barron lock’s creation, Joseph Bramah created his own entirely unique lock with the help of his assistant Henry Maudslay. The Bramah lock’s mechanism used a cylindrical key with specific notches that moved metal slides into an exact alignment to open the lock. Still sold and used today by the Bramah company, the Bramah lock is recognised as a highly secure locking mechanism that remained unpickable for over 67 years.
The Predecessor of the Modern Lock and Key
As the 19th century brought various developments and iterations on Barron’s and Bramah’s locks, in 1848 Linus Yale, Sr. patented a pin tumbler lock which was an adaptation of the very first locks used by ancient Egyptians. This mechanism used a key with ridges of various heights to align a set of key pins correctly in order to allow for the lock’s barrel to turn. The mechanism was improved on by his son Linus Yale, Jr., who patented improvements like pins of varying lengths within the lock along with serrated edges on a smaller flat key.
Yale locks are still used today all across the world, with the fairly simple locking mechanism providing robust security while also being easy to service and change. While some advancements to mechanical locks have been made using magnetic keys, the majority of locks used today are variations on the Barron, Bramah, and Yale locks.
Property Access Today
Attempts at removing keys from the equation began about 50 years ago with the invention of the push button locks. These locks require a predetermined combination of numbers or letters (depending on the lock) that once entered cause the lock to open. While push button locks free people from using keys, they require users to remember the combination, keep the combination confidential, and change the combination regularly for security reasons. Although push button locks are still used today, they’re not as common for home or residential locks, and are more frequently used to control specific personnel access in large buildings like hospitals and airports.
As smart home systems and IoT technology have advanced, digital locks have become a more viable alternative in managing property access. While many digital locks still feature a touchpad of some kind, smartphones have allowed for lock makers to create digital locks that don’t require an additional fob or keycard, and instead are completely controlled using a smartphone app. Access to guests can be easily granted digitally, making guest access for Airbnb easier, and homeowners no longer have to worry about carrying or losing their home keys.
All across space and time, locks have been there. The dance between locksmith and lockpicker is an eternal one. Each field innovates and upgrades, and the other must innovate and upgrade in response. This will continue until the end of human civilisation as we know it – or until we achieve a utopian society where ownership is a dead concept and theft does not exist!
We may never learn who invented keys and locks, but their design has echoed throughout history. They changed the world, whether they know it or not, and even today, their influence can be felt. The person who invented locks is one whose work will last eternally.
For now, locks will continue to innovate. Who knows what the next few decades will bring?