A Brief History Of The Locksmith’s Art
There’s a locksmith in Camden shop on the high street, and mostly people just pass them by. They’re ubiquitous, after all, only of any use when you happen to need a key cut or a lock changed: unless you’ve got someone new moving in or you’ve accidentally locked yourself out of your home, there’s really no reason to give the humble locksmith a second thought.
This is so true and so compelling that it’s easy to forget that locksmithing as a trade has a long and grand history. People have always had things that they wanted to hide or protect, and so there have been locksmiths for almost as long as there have been humans: the most basic kind of lock still in use today is thought to date back to the ancient Egyptians, and there is some evidence of the use of locks even before that.
Names like Linus Yale and Jeremiah Chubb have gone down in history as belonging to the most famous of all the locksmiths, and are still in common household parlance here in the twenty-first century. But how did their trade and craft develop?
Locking Devices Of The Ancients
Almost all of the basic concepts that we take for granted today – the use of wheels and levers, the alphabet, numbers and maths, the very earliest roots of the languages we all speak – originated in the parts of the world that we now know as Iran and Iraq, and locks are no exception. The first locks were remarkably simple; the earliest lock of which we are aware was discovered in the ruins of the biblical city of Nineveh – once the capital of Assyria and now a historical site of much repute and the subject of many myths. It is massive and made entirely of wood, but it is clearly recognisable as an early version of what we would now call a ‘pin tumbler’ lock: a massive wooden key, so large it needed to be carried on the shoulder, would move a wooden block in and out of a recess in the doorframe.
Locks were mentioned in the single collection of documents that have since been separately developed into the Old Testament, the Torah and the Qur’an. While most ordinary people would not have a lock on their own homes or possessions for some hundreds of years, they were most certainly a concept of which most were aware and an idea that would go on to be refined over many centuries.
The Locks Of Rome And Egypt
Some of the greatest ancient societies refined these ideas. The ancient Egyptians would use a similar principle to craft locks that had more than one of these wooden blocks, and began to experiment with primitive ways of making it so that not every ‘key’ could open every lock. As ever the Romans followed in their lead, and improved upon the idea by making the same devices from metal rather than from wood – and by adding some of the very first examples of what we now know as ‘wards’, thereby dealing with the problem of all keys opening all locks. Wealthy Romans would keep their most prized possessions in locking boxes, and would incorporate the keys with their jewellery was a way of keeping them secure and showing off that they owned things valuable enough to need to protect in such an expensive manner. There is less evidence of the ancient Greeks working on these ideas in their own ways, but they certainly used some of the kinds of locks that had already been invented by their contempories.
Locks Through The Dark Ages
Once metal was reasonably common and more ways of working with it were found, the idea of locking your possessions up with a key began truly to take off. The people who worked on this the hardest were usually monks, who after all had no shortage of money and all the time in the world to devote to their art. They began to craft remarkably intricate locks of the ‘warded pin tumbler’ type; these became gradually more and more elaborate, meaning that both the keys and the locks themselves were gradually more and more beautiful. There was one downside to the way that they were made, however: while warded locks are increasingly difficult to pick, they were pretty much always very simple indeed to bypass if you knew the trick to it and the right way to lift up the barrel as you turned a blank key. Nevertheless, these kinds of locks represented the pinnacle of locking technology for some hundreds of years after their inception.
The dark ages were actually a period of great technological advancement, and it’s something of a myth that nothing happened during the many centuries that they spanned. The discoveries made as regarding locks were perhaps not as dramatic as those from other periods, but they were certainly and without doubt a vital precursor to what happened next – and indeed the much-vaunted Renaissance was something of a dud from a locksmith in Woking perspective, as people tended to concentrate on matters more esoteric and carried on using the designs of the monks for some time.
The Great Locksmiths Of The Industrial Revolution
This continued to be the case right up until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when the locksmith without a doubt came back into his or her own. This is where some of the locksmiths of whom many people have heard came into play: Robert Barron perfected the still-used design of the lever tumbler lock in 1778, and then in 1818 the British Government issued a competition for someone to design a lock more secure than any that had been known before following a high-profile robbery. This challenge was met by none other the Jeremiah Chubb, whose work on Barron’s designs has led him to remain a household name to this day. A few years later, he founded the Chubb company alongside his brother Charles Chubb, also a locksmith of some note at the time. They continued to develop the ideas that Jeremiah had become known for, and their services were in high demand.
It wasn’t long, however, before they acquired some competition. Joseph Bramah was a prolific inventor who came up with a lock that was deemed unpickable – that is until Alfred Charles Hobbs, another name still common in locksmithing circles, was able finally to crack it some sixty-seven years later.
At around the same time, Linus Yales Sr. and Jr. together insured that the Yale name would have a place in history by doing for the pin tumbler lock what Chubb had done for the lever tumbler lock. It was the younger Linus Yale who came up with the idea of using a flat-bladed key of the kind that almost certainly now unlocks the front door to your home. Many advances have been made, of course, but by and large it is the work of Chubb, Bramah and Yale that keeps everything you hold dear safe and secure into the twenty-first century.
Modern Advances In Locking Technology
Impressive as though these achievements are, it is unlikely that they are in any way the last word in locking design. Indeed, plenty of people have come up with ways to modernise locking and drag it into the future by its keys: there is the standard hotel room punch card system pioneered in the seventies, which has since been developed into a purely electronic device, and of course the advent of RFID looks set to make a difference in the way that we lock things up. It’s now possible to have a lock that can only be activated by a registered fingerprint, and electronic locks that click open when the correct code is entered via a keypad are common in various institutions throughout the world. Very few locksmith in Slough these things have entered the domain of our homes, however, not least because they’re cumbersome and tricky and expensive – not to mention that it’s a lot easier for an unscrupulous person to get hold of a code you may have written down than a key you carry about your person. If someone knew the code, after all, there’s a good chance that you wouldn’t even be aware.
Safes are another area where locking technology has come on in leaps and bounds, and some of the most advanced examples are now all but uncrackable. These devices tend not to be suitable for use on domestic doors, however, not least because someone seeing you go in might be able to remember what you did and sneak back themselves at another time. Physical keys remain the most secure way to lock up your home.
Some possible advances in the way we secure our properties and possessions seem like things straight out of science fiction. Voice activation, retina scanning and fingerprint reading are all various degrees of possible, and it may not be much longer before some of the worlds’ richest begin securing their homes in this way rather than with a key that could be lost, stolen or copied.