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A Short History Of Locks

6th February 2021

“Hello there, and welcome back to the home-schooling history class. I’ll be your guest teacher today, leading the lesson for a one-off look at the history of locks and locksmithing. Think of me as a slightly low energy Joe Wicks, but without the PE kit and less risk of injury. Before we start, just to say I know how supply teachers are often treated, and let me tell you, there will be none of that on my watch, but thank you to whoever left me this lovely chocolate cake here which is… oh, that doesn’t taste like chocolate. (Was that you, Kerry? How are your dogs getting on?) Anyway, on with the lecture. 

We start the story 4000 years ago (which is not when I was born, Dylan, thank you very much, and less of your cheek please). Locks have been found dating back to this time in the regions of Ancient Egypt and Babylon, although they were far bigger than those we have these days. (No, Oliver, I’m talking about big LOCKS, not that, although that’s quite the anatomically precise drawing, thank you.) They were also made of wood (shush, Oliver) and were really quite crude (yes, like your drawing, Oliver) in comparison to locks today. However, the concept was similar, and the locks contained pins which were moved by a huge wooden key. (not quite as big as my mum, thanks Charlotte, but yes, large nevertheless) 

Soon the technology spread (Harvey, I’m warning you, none of that talk, and you don’t even know my mum) and soon there were locks and keys throughout Europe and in China. In Rome it became quite the status symbol to be able to show people that you had a key as it indicated you had valuables and were rich and important, much like the Kanye Wests and Kim Kardashians of today – see, I can do almost contemporary references, I’m just like you, fellow kids. By this time, keys had come down in size and the wealthier of the Romans wore then as rings on their fingers. Their finger rings must have drawn quite the admiring glances (Harvey, no, finger rings is two words and get your mind out of the gutter!) 

If we skip forward a few thousand years to around 900AD, we find the first record of locks being made from metal in the form of iron bolt locks. These were made in England, so we can take a bit of credit for that (no, Darren I wasn’t there, it was still over 1000 years ago, and no, my mum wasn’t either, can we stop talking about her?) The metal locks soon found their way across Europe and to the far East again, with iron or brass locks becoming the norm, complete with keys that opened the lock through the process of either turning, pushing or screwing. (I’m not even looking at you, Oliver) 

For the next 8 or 9 centuries not much happened in the progression of lock mechanisms, although the locks did become more beautiful to look at, especially those that belonged to royalty and nobility who commissioned intricate locks that included their crests or coat of arms. (Yes, Siobhan, I guess you could describe it as vajazzling the locks, but don’t write that in your textbook) 

Civilisation had to wait until the Industrial Revolution before the next leap forward in lock technology. The revolution meant that metalwork become easier, and components could be more easily fashioned on a larger scale. This facilitated the making of much more complex, precise and sophisticated keys. 

Near the end of the 18th century (those are the years that begin with a 17, Sam) a gentleman called Robert Barron invented the tumbler lock – now this one contained a lever which needed to be raised to the correct height in order to open the lock – being either too high or not high enough would result in the lock not opening (no, Sam, I’m not telling you whether I’ve ever been too high). Fast forward to 1817, and Jermiah Chubb won a competition to build a more secure lock, a competition held by the British Government in the aftermath of a burglary at Portsmouth Dockyard. A lock-picker was tasked with the job of picking Chubb’s lock, but after 3 months he had to admit defeat. You will still see locks bearing Chubb’s name (come on, Oliver, we’re better than “Chubb on” references) 

Chubb and his brother Charles dominated the landscape of lock-making for the following few decades – their Chubb lock company brought through many improvements, adding multiple levers to locks and also adding discs which obscured the view inside the mechanism which made lock picking even more difficult. 

After Chubb, came a chap called Joseph Bramah who competed against the brothers’ design by creating a new style of lock which worked in conjunction with a round notched key. The key, when inserted, would move metal slides in the lock, and when those slides all reached the correct position the lock would open. This new lock was advertised as being unpickable (David, it would be nice if your nose could be described as such, you do know we can see you on the webcam, right?)

After Chubb and Bramah came the third name to make up the triumvirate of lock giants (yes, Ben triumvirate is a word, granted I could have just said trio, yes). This was a name familiar to this day for his double-acting pin tumbler locks – Yale. Yale’s first name was Linus, which may be useful one day in a pub quiz (and don’t think I didn’t see you in The Woolpack before Covid struck, Sophie – I don’t know how you managed to get served), and his lock, containing pins of different lengths which all needed to be lined up by the correct key is still used today. They’re the ones that do often result in you accidentally locking yourself out, but that’s less of a problem during lockdown. 

Since the days of Bramah, Yale and Chubb there have, of course, been more advances and modifications, with electronic locks also entering the market, but in the main, all of today’s locks are derivatives of one of the major three lock pioneers. And, well, I was going to say something about the sterling work of locksmiths who manage to specialise in different types of locks, but I don’t want to blow my own trumpet (no, Oliver, that’s an inappropriate comment, and possibly physically impossible). 

I can see our time is almost up on this Zoom lesson anyway. I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure, but I shouldn’t set a bad example by lying, should I? All my best wishes to your next teacher, and should your parents need help with any security or lock issue, just get them to call me on 07990573857 for a Barnsley Locksmith (yes, on a phone, Ruth, like in the olden days).”

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