A History of locks

Locksmithing is ancient

You wouldn’t think that locksmithing can be that ancient. But if we talk about church locks, there are some worth mentioning. The earliest depiction should be found in an Egyptian temple at Kamak. It is on a bas-relief and dated from 2000 BC.

It is not immediately recognisable to eyes of modern people. Also it is rather cumbersome in operation, but it functioned effectively. nervous raising pins to create a shearline that allowed movement.

It was discovered by Linus Yale Senior in 1848. Then it was further developed and perfected by his son Linus Jr from 1861 to 1865. That created the pin tumbler cylinder lock which we use so widely nowadays.

We pay credit to the Greeks for inventing the keyhole. There was a point of a sickle shaped implement that was inserted through a small hole in the door. Then a slight rotary motion closed or withdraw a large bolt. This is an information from A Linear B tablet that was discovered in Crete and later translated. This tablet is dated from 1300 BC.

The earliest lock excavated

The Mayors, Vice-Mayors, their wives, and the key-bearers and supervisors of figs all contributed bronze for spears, points of arrows and for ships. Keys and locks are also mentioned in the Old Testament. There is a mention of it in judges chapter 3 v25. It was written around 1174 BC. As well as there is also a mention in Isaiah ch22 v22. that is from about 740 BC.

The earliest lock was excavated in Iraq at Palace of Sargon in Khorsabad. It was dated from 700 BC. The locks recognisable to modern eyes come from 79 AD. That is around the time when Vesuvius erupted. At the time metal worker’s shops where overwhelmed and locks developed.

In Pompeii and many Roman sites in Europe and also the Middle East there are many locks excavated from the time. A large number survived because they were now made from metal.


In York there were padlocks with a spring tine mechanism found. These were from the Jorvik Viking settlement of 850. The art of the period of medieval times give us a useful source of information about this. There are wall paintings, carvings, stained glass and illuminated manuscripts.

Contemporary locks and keys

You can see contemporary locks and keys in portrayals of St Peter. In art you can see these depictions of everyday life. Duke Conan of Brittany is surrendering the keys of the town of Dinan to William in the Bayeux Tapestry.

There are also written records that start to appear in the medieval period. There are not many surviving accounts but some of them are:

  • purchase of locks recorded for the refurbishment of Portchester Castle in 1385
  • London smiths were not allowed to make keys from an impression ”by reason of the mischiefs which have happened” in in 1394
  • Charles the 4th of Germany created the title of ”Master locksmith” in 1411
  • London Guilds included the ”Lockyers” by 1422

There are still some locks in historic college and university buildings, also churches that have survived from this time and are still in use. Most of the locks survived are in private collections and in museums.

The ”Beddington Lock” which accompanied Henry the 8th on his travels through the kingdom is available to see in the Victoria and Albert Museum. This lock used to be installed on his chamber door wherever he stayed. It was to ensure his privacy and also, of course, security.

”’Item – paid to the smythe that carryeth the lock about wh the King in reward VIIsVIc,” you can see written in the accounts for July 1532. During the Restoration of the monarchy in the 17th century there was a boom of architecture and the arts after the distress of the Civil War, and the privations of the Commonwealth.

Decoration of the lock mechanism

This boom extended to keys and locks as well. When it came to locks the beauty really mattered, they were made of an intricacy. The lock mechanism was very often as beautifully engraved and decorated as the case.

A level of decoration of the mechanism sometimes persisted even until the mid 18th century when the elegance ruled. The mechanism itself was enclosed within the simple and plain lockcase.

”Father of the English Lever System”

After, at the other end of the eighteenth century the Industrial Revolution began. Then in 1778 the security of locks were improved with a patent by Robert Barron. That earned him the appellation ”Father of the English Lever System”.

In some churches you can still see that modern looking and distinctive mechanism and keys. Later an inventive Yorkshire man Joseph Bramah patented the bramah lock in 1784. This was an entirely new concept in lock design.

New and improved mechanisms

These locks had a series of sliders in a circular pattern. That provided an exceptional security. These major advances lead to series of patents for new and improved mechanisms and lock developments in the 19th century.

Not all of these new lock patterns are still in use nowadays. There was also advances in the manufacture of key blanks during this period. Before keys were all hand forged.

Because of the new steam and water powered drop hammers, a stamping process was now used to make keys. In around 1816 a malleableising cast iron was discovered. That was then used for casting key blanks. You can see the changed shape of key bows when the mass production was started.

A History of locks
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