For as long as humans have had items they hold dear, they have had locks and keys to keep it safe from strangers but accessible when needed.
Unsurprisingly, the very first locks were invented by those innovative people, the ancient Egyptians, while the most current locks are probably still in the prototype stage as you read this.
Ancient Egypt Wooden Locks
The ancient Egyptians’ wooden keys and locks would probably look quite familiar to anyone seeing one today, especially for locksmiths. They used a system of tumblers cut to different lengths. The insertion of the right key – which needed to be lifted rather than turned – would line the tumblers up neatly, allowing the door or lock to be opened. One major difference, however, Egyptian locks and the keys needed to open them were massive! They could be up to a foot long, because the more tumblers that needed to be aligned, the more secure the lock was.
Greeks and Romans Move to Metal
The ancient Greeks looked at using iron to make locks in the first century BC, but their locks were never as secure as one could want. But they did give ideas to the Romans, who set to work to take Greek ideas and designs and improve them. Romans were the first people to use wards in their lock and key manufacture, and they perfected the design to the point that they could easily carry their keys with them: they would, by this time, fit into a pocket or purse fairly easily.
Variations on a Theme
From the decline of the Roman empire until about the 18th Century, locks and keys did not visibly advance in technological terms. Instead, existing technology was used, doubled up, and often, fake keyholes with fake mechanisms were used as ‘blinds’ while the real key-holes were concealed under ornaments and in unusual places such as right at the top or bottom of a door, rather than conveniently in the middle.
Bringing Things Up to Date
Along with the industrial revolution came advances in engineering that allowed locksmiths to turn their attention to design and innovation once more and in short order we saw the invention of the double-acting tumbler lock, the Bramah lock – which was unpickable for 67 years, Chubbs’ detector lock with strong internal security, Yale’s pin tumbler lock, combination locks, tamper-proof locks and a ‘first time’ lock mechanism. Finally, in all this innovation was the advent of the first padlock in 1924. Today, almost all the physical locks you use fall into these latter categories.
However, there are also key-cards, magnetic locks, and electronic locks that can potentially be operated by apps – who knows what tomorrow will bring?