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History of locks, part 1

12th December 2015

I was driving between jobs the other day, listening to the heady mix of traffic reports, phone-ins, and bizarre adverts that you only find on local radio, when a song came on that transported me back to 1985. Not literally, fortunately, as otherwise I'd have been breaking the law driving the van, but the strains of The Bangles singing Walk Like an Egyptian took me back to the time of a Tory Government, uncertain foreign affairs, and protests in the street. How things have changed, hey? 

Yes, okay, I'm not writing for Private Eye, so we'll put the political satire to one side and get on with the real subject of this blog. What the song by The Bangles really triggered in my mind is evident from its title - Egyptians. More specifically, the Ancient Egyptians and the part they played in the history of inventions. 

We all know the Ancient Egyptians built Pyramids, and many of us will be aware of the part they played in the evolution of Mathematics. Hieroglyphics were another of their legacies and, believe it or not, they even came up with the concept of toothpaste - presumably not as minty fresh as the product we have today, mind. However, the invention of theirs that I'm most grateful for - as I wouldn't have a job without it - is the lock.  

A Look Back In Time

Yes, you may not realise it but whenever you lock or unlock your house doors, your car, secure your luggage, or chain up your bike, you owe a debt of gratitude to folk some 6,000 years ago in Egypt. For it is believed that the first lock dates back to 4,000BC, remains of which have been found in an Ancient Egyptian palace

It goes without saying that the locks back then looked very different from those we have today, although at the same time the basic concept behind them will remain familiar to anyone working with pin-tumbler locks in the 21st Century. The Egyptian devices used a wooden bolt and pin device, by which a bolt in the door connected to pins that dropped down under normal circumstances due to gravity. When a 'key' (and again this was very different to the keys we know today) was inserted, it pushed the pins upwards, freeing the bolt shaft which could then be slid across, allowing the door to open. 

It has to be said, the Egyptians definition of a "key" would strike fear into any of us that have to carry around a whole load of them in our pockets or attached to our belts. Back then, as well as being made out of wood rather than metal, the keys themselves had a length of up to 2 feet, and from some angles resembled giant toothbrushes.  The concept of leaving a spare key under a plant pot by the front door really didn't work back then, unless they had a plant the size of a small car. (Side note - it's really not a good idea to leave a key under a plant pot anyway - burglars do know about that sort of thing). I imagine wife-swapping parties were also a lot more dangerous in Egyptian times too - throwing your chariot keys into the middle of the table could do someone a nasty injury.

Even accounting for the drawbacks, the Egyptian locks were actually pretty effective and although the Romans later used springs instead of bolts, this did not improve their security, and the Egyptian locks remained more difficult to pick. The later Roman locks did have the advantage of having the lock mechanism on the inside of the door though, so the Egyptian devices remained more exposed, even if they were trickier to breach. 

So that's Egyptian locks then, and an insight into my train of thought when The Bangles come on the radio.  If they play that song at your work's Christmas do, or perhaps at your New Year's Eve party, think of the wealth of knowledge you now have to impart. And if people start edging away from you whilst you're regaling them with this lock trivia, rest assured it's only because they're really, really impressed. 

Merry Christmas to all my customers and readers.

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