History of Locks and Locksmith

Locks and keys are known to have existed since the early civilizations. Egyptian civilization, Roman and Greek civilizations are credited for inventing locks independently of each other. In 1842, the oldest known lock was found in the ruins of Emperor Sargon II's palace in Khorsabad (near Ninevah), Persia. Locks and keys are mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah (445 B.C.), chapter 3: "set up the doors thereof, and the locks thereof, and the bars thereof."

The ancient Egyptian lock was estimated to be about 4000 years old. Egyptian lock consisted of three basic parts a wood crossbeam, a vertical beam with tumbler and a large wood key. It relied on the same pin tumbler principle that is used by many of today's most popular locks.

In comparison, Greek locks were primitive and easy to defeat just by trying a few different size keys. Greek locks used a notched bolt work and were operated by inserting the blade of an iron sickle-shaped key (about a foot long) in a key slot and twisting it 180 degree to work the bolt.

The Romans used notched bolt work as well but they improved on the lock design in numerous ways. They put the bolt work in an iron case and used keys of iron or bronze. Few early Roman locks are in existence as iron rusts and corrodes. A lot of the keys did prevail and can be found. The keys were ornately designed to be worn as jewelry. The extensive commerce during the reign of Julius Caesar created a great demand for locks among merchants and the politicians. Romans used warded bit-key lock and this type of lock can still be found in many old homes. The demand for locks declined after the fall of Rome in the fifth century. The evidence suggests that Romans and Chinese both invented the padlocks independently of each other.

During the middle ages, locks became works of art with elaborately designed locks and keys. Metal workers in England, Germany and France made warded locks with no significant security enhancements. Medieval and Renaissance craftsmen are credited for improving the warded lock by using many interlocking wards and complicated keys.

In 1767, "The Art of the Locksmith"; was published in France. It described examples of the lever tumbler lock. The inventor of the lock is unknown. As work of locksmith advanced, locks were designed with multiple levers, each of which had to be lifted and properly aligned before the bolt could move to the unlocked position.

In the 14th century, the locksmith's guilds became prominent. In order to be accepted as master locksmith, one had to create and submit a working lock and key to the guild. As the guild gained control over locksmiths, including regulating techniques and prices, corruption increased. The result was locks were made to be displayed in the guild hall and not for installation purposes. Consequently, some beautiful locks and keys came into existence with no technological or security advances.

No significant progress was made in lock security until the 18th century. Increasing theft in 18th century and 19th century led to major security improvements in lock designs. In 1817, the British Crown offered incentive in cash awards and honors to those who could make an unpickable lock. As a result 19th century saw some great security advancements in lock designs.

In mid 1700s most locks made in America were copies of European models. This was because England had a policy against its skilled artisans leaving the country to keep them from running off and starting competing foreign companies. As America settled, industry progressed and theft increased, demand for more and better locks increased. Soon, American locksmiths greatly improved on the English locks and were making some of the most innovative locks in the world. By 1920, American locksmiths patented about 3000 different locking devices.

Until early 19th century, locks were made by hand. Industrial Revolution in America led to the invention of lock designs that enabled mass production of locks.

Reference: Phillips, Bill; The Complete Book of Locks and Locksmithing, fifth edition, McGraw Hill, 2001

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