The history of locksmithing covers over 4,000 years of innovation in lock & key design
Today, when we think of a locksmith we think of someone who repairs and installs locks and duplicates keys. However, historically locksmiths were also intimately involved in the design and manufacture of locks and keys. Looking at the history of locksmithing we can see why this change has come about.
The First Known Locks
Like many technologies, it is believed that the first locks were invented almost simultaneously by multiple civilizations working independently. We know that the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians both used primitive wooden locks approximately 4,000 years ago. These locks operated on a pin tumbler principle—a large wooden key was inserted into a lock and pushed upwards in order to move pins or pegs, which raised a bar on the other side of the door so the door could open. The oldest known specimen of such a lock was found in the ruins of a city from the Assyrian Empire and dates to about 704 BC.
Rise of Metallurgy
The first locks to be made entirely from metal date back to around 900 AD and are believed to have been created by English craftsmen. The locks were simple bolt-action locks. Both door locks and padlocks were made during this time, primarily for aristocrats and merchants. As the art and science of metallurgy advanced through the Middle Ages, craftsmen were able to create more and more ornate and elaborate locks and keys. These were often commissioned by noblemen as status symbols.
Race Against Lockpickers
In the 18th century, lockpicking became more and more common, so locksmiths had to create more complex locks in order to repel thieves. This lead to the invention of many new types of locks, including the double-acting tumbler lock, which was patented by Robert Barron in 1778, and the safety lock, which was patented by Joseph Bramah in 1784. The safety lock was considered unpickable. Bramah offered a sizeable reward to anyone who could pick his lock, and though many tried no one succeeded until 1851. Still, the lockpicker took 16 days to complete his task which was hardly feasible for your average thief, so the safety lock was still considered effective for many years afterwards.
As time passed, locksmiths continued to invent new types of locks, including key-changeable combination locks for safes and modern pin-tumbler locks. However, by the 1900s most locks were being mass produced, so fewer and fewer locksmiths got into the business of inventing, designing, and fabricating locks. Instead, they focused on installing and repairing locks and creating key copies.
Today, locksmithing has entered the digital age. There are now many different types of electronic locking systems, including digital safes, car keys with computer chips, and keyless entry systems for buildings. Locksmiths like Curley’s Keyshop have successfully adapted to these changes in the field of locksmithing to continue to bring clients superior service for modern and traditional lock technologies.