Unlocking the History of the Locksmith
We live in an era of deep concern over our personal security. More and more of our daily assets are being digitized and put online where we have to manage passwords and other features to keep our precious data safe. Offline, we already have a solution for that, one that’s been around since the time when people first had the concept of personal property. We’re already so used to it that it’s often overlooked, but we owe our lives and our society to the invention by those who chose the locksmith profession and innovation of the lock.
Everyone knows what locks are. They’re everywhere, and we use them for nearly everything. From simple lever-based bar locks to the complex key-tooth tumblers and even the new era of voice and facial recognition; locks keep us safe from outside threats.
They give us privacy worth protecting and a space to call our own in this wide world. Some people are alive solely because of how well a lock may have worked in the past.
Many people never spoke to a locksmith and don’t know how their own locks work. Some don’t even know how they got there. Locks are so present everywhere that they are ignored unless they absolutely need to be interacted with. Often the less savory crowd are the ones with the most concern for how locks work and how to get around them. But they still don’t value the history of their safety or the intricacy to the design.
The Modern Word Locksmith
The word Lock, in English, hasn’t changed much since its earliest roots. It’s meant basically the same thing, whether from old Norse, Proto-Germanic, Old Frisian and Old English. Lock simply meant “A means of fastening.” This means that shirt buttons were Locks in the same way bars and rods were Locks for keeping doors shut.
Those who work with locks are called Locksmiths. It’s pretty easy to remember, since the profession and subject are half the word. The word “smith” originated from Old English as “one who works in metal”, which most modern locks are made of, and the Proto-German smithazI for “skilled worker”. Today we use the word Lock more than we use Locksmith, except when a house needs a set of keys for a new door.
Why We Need a Locksmith and Locks
People in any era, in any culture, desire privacy. It’s just a natural thing to want. You wouldn’t live without walls not because you have something to hide, but because being under watching eyes at all times is stressful and anxious. It’s part of our animal nature, being exposed makes us fearful of what might be watching. Even if we know there aren’t predators lurking to eat us, and even if we fully trust the people around us, we need locks to keep our lives under control. It’s not the secrets we’re keeping, but the honest truths that we try to hide.
Locks are part of elementary psychology. It’s not as much about hiding as it is a measure of protection, to assure us that things are okay and under control. That’s why people needed locks. Little did they know those ancient people were playing into the fundamental basis of our species’ desires all along. The old civilizations created locks to prevent theft, safeguard their homes and to further influence the formative eras down the line on how to best stay safe as wealth, privacy and even information changed form and function in human hands.
For as long as there has been wealth, there has been a need to safeguard it. From the pharaohs of Egypt to the peasants of the Roman Empire, everyone has had the same need to protect themselves without arms. The static defense of the lock may have even come about from nomadic cavemen, using heavy rocks to cover holes to hide food from their rivals. But the first true locks came much later, at the dawn of civilization.
The most basic and longest lasting form of lock we know of is the simplest one: a piece of wood between the door and the wall. Bars were the most common form of fortified locking going back to ancient Greek and Mesopotamian times.
These non-mechanical, weight balanced solutions were not quite locks in the traditional sense, but they did serve to “fasten” a home’s main opening shut. All it took was a sturdy door and a fixture on the wall where a heavy enough piece of lumber or long metal rod could be slotted in and fixed into position.
There were some who were considered a locksmith and presented innovations throughout the ancient world, however. Particularly in Roman homes. Rome served to innovate many old world technologies that became standards for the rest of civilization. They had some of the first sliding locks that went into the wall instead of across it, a precursor to what we know as “dead bolt” locks.
These were usually sliding bars with knob-like handles that went into grooves in the door frame that connected with the door, forming a single point of contact and bracing that held the door shut. But these solutions all suffered one consistent issue: they only worked if you were already inside.
One of the great purposes of a lock is not just to secure a home or belongings from being entered, it’s allowing the right people to pass through. Locks are best represented as symbols of trust, not barriers of dissolution. Therefore, the next logical step to building trust among neighbors and communities was to innovate locks that could be opened from outside, only by those with the select knowledge or function.
One ancient method was to have a door stopper at the base of the door which was carved into the inside of the door and managed by a small lever on the outside, at that time there was no need to call a locksmith if you were locked-out since usually a rope that raised or lowered a wooden slab from out of the ground that the door couldn’t pass over.
Possibly the actual locksmith profession was introduced when locks began coming with “keys” in Greece around the time of Homer. These Homeric locks came with a key of sorts which was more like an angled pry bar that reached through a hole in the door and was used to blindly manipulate a locking mechanism on the other side.
Because the keys were very rudimentary, usually just single pieces of bent metal, they could be replicated. All one had to do was fit it into the hole, lower it, and move it back and forth until it caught on the right groove to move a horizontal bar out of place. Additional designs of these types of locks have been found around the world and all had the same series of issue: they lacked proper controlled obstructions to prevent random people from working them.
First Grooved Key Locks Led to Another Locksmith Need- A More Sophisticated Key Duplication
While the Greeks were struggling with locking security, in the same ancient era, the Egyptians and Assyrians seemingly figured it out. They used locks with custom-made grooves which were matched to the pegs or “teeth” of a special pry bar which served as a key. These were the first pin locks, developed across the civilized world.
They became known as Laconian keys and looked surprisingly similar to the keys we associate with today. A straight bar with one end bearing perpendicular teeth off its flat edge. The main difference was that they also had an additional bend, like someone took a traditional key and made it an L shape.
Similar keys in Egypt were made for block-shaped locks and the pegs on it were on a flat surface, kind of like a huge toothbrush. These keys would be pushed into an opening in the door and then moved into place so that the pegs aligned with the holes of the lock.
Thus pushing up the pegs on the other side which were holding a bar in place within the door. The basic principle of what we know as door locks today is millenia old, and the process has only become more complicated and break-proof over time. The ancient locks were usually made of whatever was abundant and workable, such as wood or copper and bronze. It wasn’t until later that truly durable metals came into production for locks.
For much of history between the ancient period and the middle ages, one type of lock reigned supreme and was in constant use. It was so popular that it was hardly changed after hundreds of years, and our current understanding of padlocks stems from it.
The Romans made the basis of our modern locks with the use of a locksmith and iron and fine shaping techniques. This resulted in smaller keys that matched only to the locks they were made to fit, with many teeth and more elaborate construction. They improved on the ward locks in every way that a lock can be improved. They were easier to use but harder to crack, took less skill but held more force, and the keys were harder to forge or copy.
The padlock simplified the use of locks as it made them portable. Heavy ward locks or complicated puzzle locks usually couldn’t be transported or used out in the open, since the entire locking mechanism relies on them being unseen on the other side of a door.
Roman padlocks employed simple spring and pressure technology, with metal bands that forced the internal bar open when the right key was inserted and the pins tumbled into place. This also made it the first tumbler pin key in history, a design which persisted for centuries until it was finally improved after metalworking became easier.
As civilization progressed, the demand for higher security increased with it and so was the demand to have a locksmith shop around. Wood locks were no longer viable, and after the standardization of ironworks, they just weren’t good enough. This is where the traditional designs of locks throughout time originated, in dungeon doors and shackle padlocks, as well as the puzzle boxes and vault doors of old castles.
The designs of earlier locks from the Romans influenced Medieval craftsmen greatly. The simple hook-and-spring model was easy enough to replicate that it became the most basic form of lock for virtually every kind of contraption.
Padlocks with iron hooks and latches were mostly made for those who could afford them, those in possession of castles or mansions that were heavily defended. As such, they weren’t affixed to every single door of the peasantry.
It was special to have a mechanical lock while most resulted to - again - imitating the Romans with their use of pry-locks and other solutions to stay safe with another advantage that if it broke while open, you could take it to a local locksmith to fix it or easily replace it with a working pad lock.
The padlock designs that have persisted the most from this time are often seen in use latching heavy chests, or clasping the shackles of prisoners in chains. These first real padlocks, from our perspective, were very simple tools at keeping unwanted hands out of things that didn’t belong to them.
Such locks became smaller thanks to advanced ironworking techniques, but were still much bigger compared to what we know today. The main mechanism for locking was the weight of the iron itself, which was usually wrought and unrefined.
Warded Locks Made The Demand For A Locksmith Even Higher Than Before
Warded locks were the true ancestor of what we know as the most common lock today. These started in more ancient times but were refined and renovated through the medieval as the blueprints were easy to replicate but improvements were hard to make.
The locks were more intentionally complex than the simpler Roman designed spring load locks. Ward locks required special keys to be made which would fit into the matching notches inside to unlock the bolt. However, the patterns of notches weren’t as varied as future locking mechanisms, and were fairly simple to bypass as long as the basic shape was understood. This is what gave rise to the master key system, otherwise known as skeleton keys.
The way of fending off easy unlocking and lock picking was to make the locks more intricate and detailed in internal design. Locksmiths were prominently trusted to help secure belongings of nobility and other highly esteemed positions, as these were the only people in most medieval societies with substantial worth to hold.
As such, the locks had to be fittingly robust in design so one skeleton key wouldn’t be enough. Circular plates with matching grooves were often used to form rudimentary cylindrical tumblers, though that technique would not be further realized until the late 1800s.
The most common form of locking remained to be the simple bar and handle. This worked for homes and barns and stables, basically everywhere that needed a lock would get one, albeit a fairly simple one.
The old ways were replicated but rarely innovated at this point, as new technology was slow to grow during the medieval and dark age periods. The best a peasant could do to keep their valuables safe was usually not to have any, or to store it somewhere unseen.
Another practical way of keeping things locked were with simple ropes or leather bands and belts. These could be hung between a pin built into a door made of metal, or a knob or handle, and another pin in the wall.
Once tightened, the belt would serve as a latch that wouldn’t stretch against outside pressure and could easily be undone from the inside. But of course, that only works if the owner was inside all along. Opening such a lock from the outside wasn’t easy.
The Industrial Era standardized the ability to work with metal through factory and automated manufacturing processes. This meant many small, irreplaceable and hard to make parts could be created in a short period of time, allowing for locks to be made of sturdier stuff than ever before in a massive quantity.
Once locks were manufactured in a more standard way, people could easily install a standard lock without a need of a locksmith.
Innovations into the safety lock were mostly absent until 1778 when an English locksmith named Robert Barron created and patented the first ever double-acting tumbler lock. This is the kind of lock we know today on our doors, in lockers, and even the kind that’s in key-based padlocks. This was a massive leap forward and took people out of the old standards of big, clunky keys with simple pin-activation. These locks were, supposedly, impervious to standard picks or pries.
The invention was later innovated again by Joseph Bramah, an inventor, who improved the design to be truly unpickable- which it was. The Bramah lock boasted 18 pin positions on the tip of the key, which could result in a potential 494 million different combinations, making the issue of picking one less about time or force and more about pure luck for adjusting all 18 places correctly in one go.
The only person who was known to successfully pick one was American locksmith Alfred Hobbs, who went at it for days until, eventually, he not only penetrated the sole flaw but patented his own fix for it in 1851, which created the first pressure-release lock from an internal bolt and tumbler to a fixed pin. This set the groundwork for which all present day locks are based.
James Sargeant’s Keyless Lock By America's First Know Locksmith Businessman
The inventor of the combination lock, the iconic spinning dial that adorns safe doors and has been a nearly cliche staple of any good bank heist scene from the 19th century. James Sargeant patented the first key-changeable combination lock in 1857.
It was even more pry and pick resistant than the famous Bramah lock because it had no place for a key, or pick, or pry to go. Instead, the pins that tumbled inside were attached to a rotating dial labeled with numbers.
When lined up, the pins would fall into place in a sequence from the dial, and corresponding pins within the door would fall as well, as long as the whole combination was done correctly. One mistake and the lock wouldn’t tumble, it would get stuck until the door was reset.
This design became the de facto for big bank vaults, which was good, because the initial designs required doors that were heavy and thick enough to handle all the intricate moving parts without bending or folding under the pressure of weight. This way only a select few could open the locks who knew the combination, resulting in the first iteration of a true Password based lock, where a physical key wasn’t needed, only correct information.
The Yale Family Jumped Into The Locksmith Business With The Tumbler Lock
American inventor Linus Yale patented the first true tumbler lock we know today, an innovation on the designs of the ancient Assyrian King Sargon II. Where the ancient people favored wood for its workability, the Industrial age could easily replace their solid ideas with a harder material.
After centuries of innovation, the world had its first truly modern pin tumbler lock in 1843. Then, nearly 20 years later, Linus Yale Jr - son of Linus Yale Sr - further innovated the idea as a mechanical engineer. The lock worked perfectly, so he set to improve the key.
The flat key design that adorns our key rings today originated in 1861 with the Yale designed cylinder pin tumbler lock and key. The key has “teeth” of different length that line up specifically with an identical pattern of pins that line the inside of a set of tumblers.
The lock can only be turned when these pins are pushed up exactly the right amount, as even the smallest offset will apply enough force that the key cannot be turned at all, thus forcing the lock to stay shut. The pins were spring loaded, so they wouldn’t stay in place unless consistent force was applied by the teeth of the key. Once turned, a bolt would slide into the door, completing the lock, or would be pulled out to open it.
Modern Era Locksmith and Locks
Advancements from the Industrial Era mostly led to innovation on existing engineering designs. What changed, however, was the scale. Locks became smaller, more compact, but still as secure. This led to the creation of personal padlocks, miniature safes, and with the advent of the digital era, hash codes and the need for more advanced kinds of data and much more sophisticated locksmith to install and service.
The locks we used today predominantly come from the Yale design, with occasional innovations from the Schlage company’s special creations, such as the push-button lock which automatically sets a lock with nothing more than a button built into the doorknob. Locks have mostly moved out of doorknobs, as they are one of the more fragile parts of a door, and into slots that are closer to the stronger parts of the door where the locking bar functions best.
Sometimes the old ways are also best. Optional extra locks can be applied that don’t have keys, but only work from one side of the door as a result.
Things like sliding locks - chains that feed a small knob into a sliding groove that is blocked at one end so the knob can’t be pulled out - and the simple deadbolts of old are still in use, but in new metallic forms. The basics of mechanical locks haven’t changed because there has been no need for new ones.
We’ve essentially perfected the design of the mechanical lock, giving room to artistic reinterpretation and different ideas that are practiced sheerly for the sake of it rather than being a necessary step forward.
Digital Passwords, When A Programmer Replaced A Common Locksmith
Many of our valuables are no longer strictly physical and with that the need for a locksmith is becoming less important. We have more data that is valuable to us than ever before. When that data is entrusted to a third party such as a retailer or a bank, our security requires the highest level of intelligent design and memorization. This is where the ancient concept of passwords makes a return.
Long ago when keys were still just metal sticks that blindly jimmied door bars open, there was another way to safeguard and secure a location, but it required a guard. By giving the right password, a word or phrase that opened the way, the guard would undo the locks manually.
We use computers as the guards now, so a programmer can completely replace a locksmith? not so fast since the concept of the actual locking mechanism is the same. Passwords are usually manually entered or can be randomly generated through a variety of means. This allows us to make our passwords so personal that only those we already trust would know them, or so complicated and random that only the computer we use could possibly remember it.
Another comfort to the locksmith business comes from the notion that digital security is not as easy to guarantee as physical, mechanically robust security. Once a password is guessed or discovered, it’s like a skeleton key into a ward lock, or a pry bar against a Homeric lock. Password security is mostly up to the individual, and occasionally the group or company holding onto it.
Biometrics surely means that you can not call a locksmith to duplicate your fingerprint
Words can be guessed or imitated, and even the strongest metals can break with force. It seems like, inevitably, there will always be something that breaks down the safety we already know, a new pick or way of picking that renders contemporary locks useless.
The reason is because of the keys that are used. So what kind of key can be made that is inimitable, truly unique and can’t be stolen? Check your fingers. There should be one on each of them.
Biometrics are the “measured life signs” that are part of our own body. The human body is full of unique divergent patterns across the skin, in the eyes, and even in our throats.
There are trillions of cells that make up our body, and no two can ever be truly identical. Innovative modern locksmiths have created systems that register your thumbprint, retina pattern and other organic patterns that can only come from one person in the world - you - as keys to work physical locks.
As the sophistication of locks has increased, the need for heavier and more durable materials has surprisingly decreased. We’ve mostly plateaued with the constructive locks that are physically built and installed, with no truly new ones coming to the forefront in terms of design or intricacy.
All that changes is the strength of the locking mechanism itself, going up to nearly immovable magnetic locks that can only be opened by cutting the current to them, which a key assists with.
However, with the advent of electricity and the existence of radio waves, the modern era has given way to the simple, lightweight solution of wireless readers. Whereas any locksmith that desire to stay in business will have to adopt to the new "key" technology and offer applicable solutions.
These usually come in plastic cards, but it’s not the card itself that is the key, it’s what is programmed into the card, or installed on it as additional hardware. Things like Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) use electromagnetic fields placed on tracking tags which carry unique identities. If the ID matches one in a wireless scanner or card reader, the locks inside will be undone.
Other frequencies like the very new BluTooth wireless data transferal wave and just generic wireless IP tracking can be used the same way to connect registered devices like smartphones or similar small pieces of tech. These keys are not easy to imitate at all. In fact, it’s sometimes impossible.
As long as the keycard is in possession of the person it’s supposed to belong to, then it’s as safe as it could possibly be. Some security providers will hire a locksmith to handle situations when there's a security breach.
Conclusion: Technology Will Not Overcome The Need For A Locksmith It Will Force The Locksmith To Become More Hi-Tech
It’s important to remember the origin of locks: it’s a safety mechanism. Any locks much like a locksmith doesn’t keep people out, it allows us to control who can come close. Having that amount of control is what easily separates us from lesser mammals, and the degree of control we have has exceeded all expectations from a historical standpoint.
A locksmith is a job designated to keep your access control working, hence locks are part of a long series of human innovations born from a necessity and innovated to reinforce that basic psychologically driven urge for more control over our own selves.
A locksmith can’t control the weather, but a locksmith can lock it out of our homes. We get to choose who is close enough to know everything and who should remain safely distant. Locks don’t create a world of burglars, they make a world that is more open and willing to gain trust.