Ever since man started to place a value on material possessions, there has been a growing need to keep these possessions secure. Locks and keys are frequently mentioned in both the Old Testament and in Greek mythology. While it was relative simple to secure a property from the inside by placing bars across the door, securing a door from the outside the required skills and ingenuity that we take for granted in modern locks.
Early locks were crude and made of wood, but the basic principles of their operation remain unchanged to the present day. One of the earliest locks known to archaeology was found in the ancient Egyptian city of Niveveh. This lock used a crossbar enclosed in two mounted surfaces that was enclosed apart from a small opening for the keys. Moveable pins were dropped into holes on the crossbar which prevented the cross bar from moving, thus securing the door. When the key was inserted into the lock, it would move the concealed pins out of the way and allow the cross bar to be moved. This type of lock is now known as an Egyptian door lock due to its widespread use in Egypt.
The Greeks also used wooden locks that worked by the simple process of fastening a wooden bolt and staple to the inside of a door. A sickle shaped wooden key was used to lift the bolt from the outside of the door. In comparison to the Egyptian door lock, this lock offered little in terms of security, since it was a trivial task to fabricate a key to lift the bolt. Both Egyptian and Greek locks shared the same basic security problem. They used wood which could be easily chopped and burned.
The Romans were the first civilisation to design metal locks based on Egyptian principles. These locks had the immediate advantage of being far more resilient than wooden locks. The Romans designed locks in various shapes with different style keys. These often featured ornate designs of birds and flowers. However, one of the more significant contributions that the Romans made to lock technology was the invention of ward locks. Wards are projections around the keyhole, which prevented the lock from being turned without the proper key.
The growth of the Roman Empire with all of its opulence and material wealth resulted in huge demands for locks. Professional locksmiths were sought after to produce ornate locks. The emphasis was increasingly placed on the aesthetics and design of the locks, with little advancement made in the underlying technology.
Lock through the Centuries
By the 14th century locksmith guilds were common place in major cities. However, it can be argued that these early locksmiths’ guilds caused more harm than good. They gained a great deal of regulatory control over both locksmiths and the technology they used. The guilds did not encourage technological advances and little progress was made in terms of lock security until the 18th century. Significantly in the 18th Century cash incentives and rewards were offered to anyone who could pick open newer and more secure locks. This led to some innovative lock designs from locksmiths that went on to form companies that have now become household names. It was during this period Jeremiah Chubb patented an unpickable lock.