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History of locks, part 5

9th April 2016

As if by magic, the clocks have gone forward, the evenings are getting lighter, and the temperature is finally getting warmer. And as if that isn't enough good news for one paragraph, there's also the matter of the fifth and final of my blogs looking back on the history of locks. If you need to catch up on the previous four they're still on this site over the last few months, so check them out for the story so far. But today we reach the thrilling denouement, and rest assured, that unlike in Dallas it won't all have turned out to be a dream. Although you may wish it had been. 

Lock design through the ages

So to recap, we've investigated the Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Romans, we've looked at the innovations of Robert Barron and Jermiah Chubb; and we spent last month looking at Barnsley lad, Joseph Bramah. For this blog though, we'll whizz across the pond to the US and finish up our journey with the man who is arguably the name most associated with locks and keys today, nearly 200 years on from  his birth. Yes,  you may have guessed already - we're talking about Yale.

There were actually two main Yales - father and son. Confusingly they only had one name between them, both being called Linus, so came to be known as Linus Yale Sr and Linus Yale Jr. It's fair to say, however, that they made up for their  scarcity of names through their work revolutionising the industry.  Yale Sr kicked things off through his early career, running a lock shop in New York state in the 1840s. This shop concentrated mainly on bank locks rather than on your average door locks. However, things changed when his son, Yale Jr joined the business, and it was the younger Yale who was the main instigator of the innovations in domestic locks that would follow.  Eventually, the younger Yale would team up with a business partner by the name of Henry Towne and form the Yale Lock Manufacturing Company in the 1860s. The company prospered over the next 150 years and despite being taken over by a Swedish parent company (Assa Abloy) at the turn of the millennium, the subsidiary firm still goes by the name of its founder, Yale. 

The secret of Yale's success lay mainly in Yale Jr's designs. In a "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants" type of way, he took existing inventions (including his father's designs) and refined them with his own twist, creating locks of mass appeal and greater security. Perhaps his most acclaimed invention was his modern pin tumbler design lock. Yale wanted a lock with a much smaller aperture than existing locks which were vulnerable to thieves armed with picks, heat or explosives.  If you look at a modern day Yale lock (the sort with the flat keys), you'll see how the size of the keyhole is so much smaller than that in an old style lock - there's certainly no room to insert a mini stick of dynamite in there! 

We know from previous blogs (you HAVE been reading them, right?) that the first pin tumbler style locks can be dated all the way back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians, so this in itself wasn't a new design. In this lock, several small pins block the movement of the bolt until a key is inserted, allowing the bolt to be moved. Yale's innovation was that his whole lock was so much smaller, it was made of steel, and the totally flat key allowed for a much slimmer keyhole. The key was cut with many grooves, and these grooves matched up to the pins inside the lock. When all the pins were raised to the exact right height, the key could be turned. Yale made his keys so precise that even a tiny difference in either the key, or the pins would result in entry being blocked. This miniaturisation meant many more thousands of combinations could be created, making things a whole lot more secure. 

Bringing innovation to the lock world

Yale's updated design took the lock world by storm and won awards at all the lock fairs and conferences. The design had the advantage of being cheap to produce so was within the price range of the general public. This was arguably the first time that a device of such security was so widely available to so many .

In the 150 years since Yale, more developments have of course taken place, but the Yale pin tumbler lock still serves as a template for almost all domestic locks in use today. The odd refinement here and there has been made, but the design has not really been bettered. Will we still be using it in 2150? Who can say, but I'm hoping to be retired by then so it'll be someone else's problem regardless! Here's to Yale, anyway, and all that he did for the industry. 

For an appointment or emergency call out call Stephen at SF Locksmiths on call 01266 399 067, we will ensure to give you the best possible service. 


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