The history of door locks

Lock on a castle door

In the UK, and most of the developed world, we wouldn’t dream of closing our front doors without locking them, it’s just instinctive. But where did the idea come from and just what does the history of door locks teach us?

The first locks

Like many of today’s everyday mechanisms, there is a dispute about where the idea originated, and with locks the jury is out on whether it was the Ancient Egyptians, Romans or Greeks that developed the first recognised lock. Even before civilisation, man would secure his belongings with rope or animal gut twisted into intricate knots, which acted more as an alarm, rather than a deterrent.

The first pin tumbler lock

Over six thousand years ago in Ancient Egypt, a locksmith created a simple, but efficient mechanism made from wood. Its formation was the beginnings of the pin tumbler lock, which is still the basis of the world’s most popular lock today. The horizontal bolt that fitted into the post had openings carved into it, which were operated by a wooden key. The wooden key resembled a toothbrush, with corresponding pegs that fitted into the openings. Although the origins of the lock are disputed, Historians agree that the evidence of this wooden lock dates back to around 704 BC.

Changes in lock material

The Romans took the idea of the lock and key from the Greeks, whose locks were regarded as being highly unsafe, but did inspire the Romans. The Romans introduced iron and bronze into the locks and developed a key that was small enough to be carried in a pocket, or as preferred by many of the affluent to wear on show in a ring. This symbolised that they were rich enough to own possessions that needed guarding – quite the opposite in today’s society.

Development of locks in the 1800’s

In 1784 a designer, Joseph Bramah invented a tubular pin tumbler lock that was so unique it was regarded as being 50 years ahead of any Chubb lock. The intricate design and complicated machinery required to produce these quality locks meant that they were not available to everyday households. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that locks really became accessible to everyone, and it wasn’t until 20 years later before progress was made on the development of locks for ordinary homes and businesses’ front doors. In 1805, an English patent for a double-acting pin tumbler lock (which was based on the Bramah design) was granted to American physician Abraham O. Stansbury in England, but it took another two years before the patent was granted in the States. It wasn’t until 1848 that the lock industry was revolutionised with the very first Yale modern pin tumbler lock, and hence improved upon in 1861, when Linus Yale, Jr. patented the smaller serrated edged key we all know today. To emphasise just how remarkable the 19th Century was for the lock industry let’s look at the timeline –

  • 1818 – Jeremiah Chubb invented the high security internal lock system.
  • 1848 – Linus Yale, Sr.invented the first pin tumbler lock.
  • 1857 – James Sargent invented the first combination lock.
  • 1873 – James Sargent invented the first time lock mechanism.

So, from fairly rudimentary beginnings, the necessity to protect our homes, possessions and ourselves has transformed the lock industry. We currently have at our fingertips a vast range of locks including – cylinder, mortice, multi-t, latch, anti-snap, and with the requirements and advancements in technology escalating, it remains to be seen just how we will be securing our homes and possessions in the future. It’s worth remembering that 40% of burglars enter the property via the front door, so choosing a lock should be one of the most important decisions you make.

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