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History of locks, part 2

10th January 2016

It’s 2016, and what better way to start off the New Year than to continue on from last month’s jaunt through the history of locks? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way, so there’s no need to collar me on the street and start telling me the wide and varied ways of starting the New Year that would be better than this. Instead we’ll just assume there is no more preferable option than reading a continuation of the time line of lock invention and move on.

So, where did we leave the story last month? I guess we should do some sort of “Previously on 24...” catch up, but I’m pretty sure last month’s blog is forever etched in your memory and that your every thought over the Christmas period was devoted towards Ancient Egyptian locks. Which, believe me, would still have been many times preferable to watching the never ending episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys that infiltrated the TV schedules like a particularly insidious virus.

Egyptian lock design

The Egyptians had left us with the basic lock design, and pretty good it was too. However, wouldn’t you know it, then the Romans came along. And in answer to the eternal question (most famously posed in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian), “What did the Romans ever do for us?” one answer is that they made locks and keys a lot smaller. Okay, it might not seem as if that’s up there with roads, sewers and the Julian calendar, but it was one hell of a useful development when you think about it. Under the Egyptians, the wooden keys could be several feet in length and let’s face it, that’s just not all that convenient. The Romans , however, got keys down to much nearer the size we have today, and crucially also changed the material the keys were made of. Out went wood and in came bronze.

The Romans loved bronze more than the British 4 by 100 metre relay team. They were also pretty good at moulding it. First they would make a model of the key required for the particular lock. This model would then be covered in clay and fired which caused the wax to melt and run out, and the clay to harden into a mould. Into this mould was poured molten bronze and after it was left to cool, the clay mould was cracked open to reveal the new bronze key – far more durable, easier to handle, and less susceptible to splintering than the old Egyptian style keys. The keys were small enough to be worn on a finger - helpful, given that togas were not generally fitted with pockets. I imagine this miniaturisation also had the knock on effect of vastly increasing the number of Roman men asking their wives if they’d seen their keys as they were sure they’d left them there... you’ve moved them haven’t you.. I wish you wouldn’t.

A similar bronzing technique was used to create the locks which, whilst keeping the basic Egyptian design, also developed into being made out of metal rather than wood, a more secure material for keeping one’s property safe. Security was increased by the addition of a “ward” on the face of the key which corresponded to a projection in the lock itself – only a key with a matching slot to the lock’s projection would fit in and turn. The Romans also introduced the concept of a key not having to turn a full 360 degrees within the mechanism in order to open the door. From this we can deduce that the Romans were the first to include a spring-loaded bolt inside their locks.

Identifying security flaws

Despite these advances, locks did remain relatively easy to pick by an expert with the correct tools, and this situation persisted all the way from Roman times through the next 17 centuries, as lock design remained pretty much stagnant. Which is either a poor indictment of progress, or testament to the longevity of the Roman design.

And that’s where we leave the story for now, just before some very significant developments by Messrs Barron, Chubb, Bramagh and Yale. But that’s for another day.  Stay tuned for the next instalment where the next lock up for discussion will be John Locke, the 17th Century philosopher. So if you wouldn’t mind reading up about Tabula Rosa, his theory regarding the epistemological question of the theory of knowledge, you’ll find next month’s blog a lot easier to follow. Unless I change my mind and just bang on about locks again.

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