Evolution of Locks and Locksmiths

Sat 12 March 2016 | -- (permalink)

Locks are simple-enough sounding mechanisms designed to keep doors, chests, cabinets, suitcases, and other storage devices and facilities from opening up and revealing their contents to anyone unless they had the key. In ancient times, the key was invariably a physical object that had to be inserted into the lock in order to work. Modern keys are just as often a piece of information — like the combination to a vault lock — or a piece of your own body, such as in a retina scanner.

old lockLocksmiths have changed over the millennia just as much as locks have. The first locksmiths were literally smiths — they forged locks out of iron, with hammers and anvils and heat.

The oldest locks were made of wood, and used wooden pins and wooden keys, but they fell out of style in the age of Cleopatra, when Greek people took the concept, brought it home, and started doing the same thing with metal. locksmiths in Atlanta — the one that used to exist, in ancient Greece — forged some of the earliest locks that we would recognize as such today.

The Romans took over shortly thereafter and made locks more difficult to open by adding warding — shaped metal sections that prevented people from putting the wrong key into the lock. Over centuries, warding evolved into the now-familiar notching of keys that we still use today. After the fall of Rome and the subsequent Dark Ages, locks remained static for nearly a thousand years, until the Industrial Revolution.

That’s when a clever British man named Robert Baron invented the double-tumbler lock, which is the basis of all modern locks that use keys. In these locks, the bolt is locked into place by a variety of different-length levers or tumblers, and only the correctly-shaped key will move all of the levers or tumblers into precisely the right height to allow the bolt to move.

But first, a brief step backwards — because there was a fork in the history of lock making that happened in the 14th-17th centuries. This was a time during which the thrills of clockwork and of ‘machine puzzles’ were being uncovered by the likes of Da Vinci and his peers and successors. These went on to become modern combination locks — the first locks to work on information rather on physical keys, and the earliest ancestors of our modern fingerprint and retinal scanners.

OK, back to the modern lock. As time moved forward, locks became more and more challenging to pick as the keyholes became smaller, the joint between tumbler and bolt more secure, and key carving more intricate. As the physical demands of creating a modern lock became more and more complex, locksmiths shifted from being the people who created locks to being the people who repaired and replaced locks.

There are still locksmiths like this one that can and do build their own locks and keys, but they are few and far between these days. By far and away, however, a modern locksmith’s most common job has nothing to do with creating locks, and much more to do with how and where to USE locks.

A modern locksmith is half-expert in physical security, able to talk intelligently about the security threats to your average retail location or large home as well as being able to craft a key, fix a broken lock, or get you into your car in a heartbeat if you’ve locked your keys inside. No longer are locksmiths creative craftsmen who turn lumps of iron into effective forms of security, but they are nonetheless still artists as well as craftsmen — just of a different kind.