We all have a set of keys, don’t we? But have you ever thought about how important this everyday invention has become in our lives, and who actually thought of the idea of securing their belongings in this way?
The first locks were just knots made from rope or other materials. They were a way to detect whether someone had tried to open a valuable chest or store. Not that much use, if the thieves had managed to escape with the goods!
The oldest known lock mechanisms are from the Egyptian period, 4,000 years ago. They were essentially large wooden bolts with holes in them. The holes were filled with wooden pegs that prevented the bolt from being moved. The only way to free the bolt from its locked position was when a wooden key was inserted. When the key was lifted upwards, it displaced the pins which were kept in place by gravity. This design had several disadvantages: the lock and the key were made from wood (a material that can easily be broken by force) and the key itself was very bulky and heavy
The Romans made many improvements to the original locks designed by the Egyptians. They managed to produce keys that were small enough to put in your pocket, or to be made into a pendant, or even made into a ring for the owner to wear. But the problem was that they weren’t that secure. The corresponding locks were easy to pick, easy to force open and very expensive. Despite this, the new designs of keys soon became symbols of wealth, and statements of nobility and influence. Small keys (usually made from bronze, silver, gold or iron) were used to publicly display a person’s wealth and generally, only extremely rich people afforded things such as safes and doors which used locking mechanisms
Following the fall of the Roman Empire keys and locks mainly stayed the same for more than 1500 years. The design that we now call the skeleton key – a simple, cylindrical shaft that has one single, thin and rectangular tooth (or bit) has been in use for 17 centuries. Locks became much more complicated in order to deter thieves and would be trespassers. They began to feature keys designs which were more difficult, doors would have more than one lock and some cases fake locks were used. The idea was that a thief would spend so too much time trying to pick the device that they would eventually give up.
Over the period of just one hundred years, locks and keys became far more sophisticated. One of the most famous names that the ordinary man or woman in the street knows is that of Yale. Modern “flat keys” were first introduced by Linus Yale Senior and his son, Linus Yale Junior, in the mid-1800s. By using tumbler locks and more sophisticated ways of regulating the pins, these flat keys become an instant success across the world. Their locks were easy to manufacture, and thanks to the invention of key cutting, easy to produce in large numbers.
So take another look at that simple-looking piece of metal in your pocket. There’s a lot more to it than you might first think