An Ancient Profession: The History Of Locksmithing

| | August 25, 2023

Ever been locked out of your home?

Imagine, it’s 9 pm on a Friday night. The taxi drops you off just outside your home. You are exhausted and can’t wait to flop on the couch. As you reach your front door you fumble around trying to find your keys. You look everywhere through your bag and pat-down yourself from head to toe to see if they are in a different pocket.

Your mind starts racing wondering where you left your keys. Are they at work? Did you leave them at the bar when you were having some after work drinks with mates?

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The fact is, you are locked out.

What do you do? You call a locksmith to let you back in.

It’s a common scenario that we have likely all experienced at one point in time. It’s also something that we take for granted. Locksmiths didn’t always exist. Can you image not having any lock or keys?

Locksmiths In Ancient Times

Locksmithing is one of the oldest professions. It is believed to have started in Ancient Egypt and Babylon around 4000 years ago.

A common belief was that the first locks were small and portable and were used to protect goods from thieves who were common along ancient travel routes. Not so.

Locks back then were not as sophisticated as they are now. Most locks were large, crude and made of wood. However, they were used and worked in the same way as today’s locks. There were pins in the lock, however, they could only be moved with the use of a large cumbersome wooden key (imagine something looking like a large wooden toothbrush). This giant key was inserted into the lock and pushed upwards.

As lock and key “technology” spread, it could also be found in ancient Greece, Rome, and other cultures in the east including the China.

Wealthy Romans were often found to keep their valuables under lock and key. They would wear the keys as rings on their fingers. This had the benefit of keeping the key on them at all times. It would also be a display of status and wealth. It showed you were wealthy and important enough to have valuables worth securing.

The oldest known lock was in the ruins of the Assyrian Empire in the city of Khorsabad. This key was believed to be created around 704 BC and looks and operates much like the wooden locks of the time.

Moving To Metal

Not too much changed with locks until around 870-900 AD when the first metal locks started to appear. These locks were simple iron bolt locks and are attributed to English craftsmen.

Soon locks made of iron or brass could be found all over Europe and as far as China. They were operated by keys that could be turned, screwed or pushed.

As the profession of locksmithing developed, locksmiths became talented metal workers. The 14th to 17th centuries saw a rise in artistic achievements by locksmiths. They were often invited to create locks with intricate and beautiful designs for members of the nobility. They would often design locks inspired by the royal crest and symbols.

However, while the aesthetics of locks and keys developed, there were few improvements made to the lock mechanisms themselves. With the advances in metal works in the 18th century, locksmiths were able to create more durable and secure locks and keys.

The Evolution Of The Modern Lock

The basic design of how a lock and key worked had remained relatively unchanged for centuries.

When the industrial revolution came along in the 18th century, the precision in engineering and component standardisation greatly increased the complexity and sophistication of locks and keys.

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In 1778, Robert Barron perfected the lever tumbler lock. His new tumbler lock required the lever to be lifted to a specific height in order to unlock. Lifting the lever too far was as bad as not lifting it far enough. This made it more secure against intruders and is still currently used today.

After a burglary occurred in Portsmouth Dockyard in 1817, the British Government created a competition to produce a more superior lock. The competition was won by Jeremiah Chubb who developed the Chubb detector lock. The lock not only made it difficult for people to pick it, but it would indicate to the locks owner if it had been tampered with. Jeremiah won the competition after a lock picker failed to open it after 3 months.

Three years later, Jeremiah and his brother Charles started up their own lock company, Chubb. Over the next couple of decades, they made vast improvements to the standard lock and key systems. This included using six levers instead of the standard four. They also included a disc that allowed the key to pass through but made it difficult for any lock pickers to see the internal levers.

The Chubb brothers lock designs were based on the use of movable internal levels, however,Joseph Bramah created an alternative method in 1784.

His locks used a round key with notches along the surface. These notches would move metal slides that would interfere with the opening of the lock. Once these metal slides had been moved by the key notches to a specific position then the lock would open. At the time, it was said to be unpickable.

Another major improved was the double-acting pin tumbler lock. The earliest patent for this design was granted in 1805, however, the modern version (still in use today) was invented in 1848 by Linus Yale. His lock design used pins of different lengths to stop the lock from opened without the correct key. In 1861, he invented a smaller flatter key with serrated edges that would move the pins. Both his lock and key designs are still in use today.

Apart from the introduction of electronic chips, and some minor improvements in key design, most locks today are still variants of the designs created by Chubb, Bramah and Yale.

The Changing Role Of The Locksmith

With the more successful designs and industrial mass production, locksmithing went through a change. They had to start specialising.

A lot of locksmiths worked as repairmen for industrial locks and would replicate keys for people who wanted more keys available for others. Other locksmiths worked for security companies to design and build custom safes for banks and government organisations.

Today, modern locksmiths tend to work out of a workshop or from mobile locksmithing vans. They sell, install, maintain and repair locks and other security devices.

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All locksmiths have to apply skills in metalwork, woodwork, mechanics and electronics. Many tend to focus on the residential sector or work for commercial security companies. However, they can also specialise as forensic locksmiths, or specialise in a particular area of locksmiths such as auto locks.

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