From the dawn of civilization, humans have faced the desire to protect themselves and their belongings. While the basic need for security hasn’t changed over millennia, the mechanics have. From the early Mesopotamian locking devices to the most advanced high-tech gadgets in today’s marketplace, locks have experienced a lifetime of reinvention that reflects socio-economic progress. Here are a few highlights of the lock’s journey throughout Western history from a wooden stick to digital technology.
The first lock that used a key
It’s a common misconception that the Egyptians invented the lock. Like the veritable wheel and other indispensables of modern living, the earliest known lock system belongs to the kingdom of Assyria in ancient Mesopotamia. The proto-mechanism was discovered at the Palace of Khorsabad in Iraq. The primitive pin tumbler tool was made of wood, but introduced a fundamental locking principle: the use of a key. When locked, wooden pins of various lengths secured the horizontal bolt in place. To unlock it, the proper key had to be inserted into the casing, which would then push the pins to realign and disengage the bolt allowing the closure to open. The world has never been the same since.
Keys the size of toothbrushes
The Egyptians imported and improved the lock, pioneering its widespread use in architecture. Based on the original design, Egyptian locks used brass instead of wooden pins. The early keys were heavy, up to a foot long, resembling oversized toothbrushes. The seemingly minimal upgrade had considerable impact. It was harder to break into or counterfeit. Following the ancient trade routes, the tumbler lock traversed the Mediterranean Sea and made its way into the Hellenic world and the Roman Empire.
Romans introduce metal locks
The Romans were the next to build upon the Mesopotamian design by introducing iron locks and bronze keys. Substituting wood entirely for metals not only made the locks stronger, it allowed the Romans to create smaller locks for chests and drawers as well as portable keys small enough to wear as rings. The Romans are also credited with inventing wards: a system of projections and grooves inside the lock that requires a precisely corresponding slot on the key to move the bolt.
Lockpickers enter the scene
Amid the mayhem and scarcity the Middle Ages brought with its plagues and geopolitical turmoil, people were getting increasingly desperate to protect their valuables. Legend has it that wealthy families embraced a trendy knowhow: submerging containers in moats filled with crocodiles. But outside of water and crocodiles, locksmiths struggled to keep up with another growing phenomenon: lock picking. If one knew the general key shape of a warded lock, the notches could be filed to act as a master key. Thus, lock and key designs grew substantially more complex and ornate, including creation of elaborate fake keyholes to throw off potential thieves. Still, cheaper than crocodile moat maintenance!
The great locksmith showdown
Over time, more sophisticated locks were introduced, claiming to be more secure and, therefore, less likely to be picked. In 1784, Joseph Bramah patented his “Safety Lock,” daring anyone to pick it. The precision-locking mechanism featured a series of wafers that lift to different heights once the corresponding cylindrical key is inserted. This set off a lock frenzy in Britain leading up the nationwide lock competition in 1817 won by Jeremiah Chubb whose design had a relocking feature that enabled the lock to jam if the wrong key was inserted. Both Bramah and Chubb enjoyed an unbeatable reputation until an American locksmith Alfred C. Hobbs picked both (!) locks at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Lock creators you’ll recognize
The Industrial Revolution changed the way people produced and consumed goods and services. Locksmith manufacturing turned into the lock industry as well. American inventors were propelling industrial design forward. Father and son Linus Yale (Sr. and Jr., respectively) made a name for themselves with custom-made bank locks until they patented the Yale Lock with the groundbreaking flat grooved key. It became so popular, it is still commonly used to this day. The Yales also introduced the Monitor Bank Lock, which marked a new era with keyless combination locks. James Sargent upgraded the idea into the first timed lock which could only be opened at a preset time. Locks were getting smarter.
The first electronic keycard lock
Throughout the 20th century, the lock market was saturated with variations of the seminal Bramah, Yale, and Sargent designs. Companies like Water Schlage and Kaba joined the ranks of reputable industry players. However, largely limited to physical keys, the concept of a lock remained unchallenged until 1975. Inspired by an unfortunately tragic episode at a hotel, Tor Sornes patented the first electronic keycard lock that would revolutionize the hospitality industry. The programmable lock and digitization of security ushered in all kinds of advanced knowhow taking the traditional lock to the next level. Finally, the ideas of science fiction like digital passwords, fingerprint scanning, voice identification, facial recognition, and radio-frequency identification (RFID) were no longer hypothetical, but readily available.
Smart locks arrive
Today, locks have become smart, intuitive, complex electronic systems that offer control, flexibility, convenience, and customization. Several smart security devices have fared well in the last decade. Introduced in 2007, the Kwikset SmartKey allows you to re-key your lock yourself in seconds. With its touch-to-unlock feature, Kevo Lock is another popular choice. However, it is the startup brands like August that are gaining ground in the expanding connected home devices market. The August Smart Lock boasts quick and easy integration with Apple’s HomeKit as well. The Bluetooth powered gadget is compatible with cylindrical lock types and fits over your door’s existing deadbolt lock. Powered by an iOS or Android app, virtual keys can be issued over the smartphone.
The first all-in-one video smart lock
The latest addition to the smart lock marketplace is Gate: an all-in-one video smart lock that pushes beyond the limitations and vulnerabilities of other smart locks. Its unique breakthrough feature is the motion-activated camera with real-time video and two-way audio streaming. This first camera-equipped smart lock lets you instantly see who’s at your door and receive notifications of any activity on your phone. Gate’s trusted access platform has many helpful features, including a verification protocol with the photos and names of scheduled delivery persons. The device’s ability to lock and unlock the door directly from your mobile device eliminates the need to fumble for your keys at the bottom of the bag. Gate has garnered much attention from consumers, property managers, and investors by raising the bar (or should we say stick) on what a smart lock can do.