Do you know that locksmithing may have been one of the oldest professions in the world? It seems people had been fussing over security and privacy for, literally, thousands of years. Various archaeological records suggest various human civilization’s lasting interest with locks and keys.
The first indications of something that resembles a lock and key system – surely, the work of a locksmith – was found in Egypt, near what was known in ancient times as Nineveh. Many experts say that this lock, a large wooden bolt with holes that is believed to have been made around 2000 BC, is a direct precursor to the basic pin-tumbler lock design that is still in wide use today. It had pins from the lock housing drop through holes on one end of the bolt. Its key was made of a long wooden bar that is fitted with pegs whose pattern matches that of the lock, enabling it to lift the pins and allowing the bolt to slide.
Locksmiths from other countries around the Mediterranean, most prominently Greece, have also produced rough lock-and-key systems that have contributed to the development of security systems. The early Greeks were believed to have been the first civilization to use keyholes.
Meanwhile, the Romans who came into widespread power after the decline of the Greeks, were the first to create metal locks, which meant that the first true locksmiths – skilled artisans who worked with metal – also came into fashion around this time. The Romans also created the early forms of padlocks and developed small keys (a departure from the heavy designs favored by earlier civilizations). Roman locksmiths are also credited for introducing the warded locks, various versions of which are still being mass-produced today. This type of lock uses projections (the wards) inside the lock casing that obstruct any key except one that has the exact cut of notches matching the ward. The warded lock had been the standard design for lock-and-key systems from then until around the 17th century, with the only variations being the quite elaborate aesthetic designs.
While locksmiths in Eurasia was stuck for a couple of centuries on the easily picked lock, in another part of the world, Chinese locksmiths was able to develop the combination lock. This type of lock does not need a key to be opened. It can only be locked and opened by the correct alignment of letters or numbers on a dial. By the 16th century, a variation of the combination locks that had been developed in China also appeared in Germany. By the 17th century, some English locksmiths were also starting to produce the combination locks.
Modern locksmithing entered modern history in the 18th century, when Joseph Bramah received a British patent for a lock mechanism that requires a cylindrical key to push down and turn aside an arrangement of thin metal slides in a plug holding the bold in place. This is believed to be the first lock-and-key design that was mass-produced.
In the mid-19th century, the men whose name still appears in one the most popular lock brands in the world, Linus Yale and Linus Yale, Jr., received the patent for a lock with radial pin tumblers and its improvements. The Yales manufactured the lock which features a cylindrical plug, with the pin tumblers arranged in a row along the cylinder’s turning axis. This can be opened with the matching flat, serrated key that lifts the pin and subsequently releases the bolt.