When did locksmithing begin?
Scientists and historians can date the first lock (and therefore locksmiths) back to 704BC; it was discovered in the ruins of the Assyrian empire in the city of Khorsabad (Northern Iraq). This wooden lock consisted of different lengths pins to prevent the lock from opening without inserting a bulky cumbersome wooden key into the lock which would push the pins upwards and unlock it.
Locks stayed practically the same up until around 870-900 AD, when the first metal locks started to appear. Soon locks made of iron or brass could be found all over Europe and even as far as china. These locks were operated by keys that could be turned, screwed or pushed. During this time locksmithing was a profession that created locks and keys.
The 14th to 17th century saw the rise in artistic achievements, the ornamentation of the keys used for locks started becoming more important, locksmiths were now not only in charge of ensuring the functionality of the keys, but the aesthetics value as well. Locksmiths were often invited to create locks with intricate and beautiful designs for members of nobility, they would often design locks inspired by royal crest symbols. It was not the easiest of careers though as being a locksmith in Europe at that time could have got you hanged. In France, for example locksmiths had to follow draconic rules stipulated in special guidebooks and could be punished if they did not comply.
While the aesthetics of locks changed, there were few improvements made to the lock mechanism themselves. That was until advances in metal works in the 18th century were locksmiths were now able to create more durable and secure locks and keys
The industrial revolution that changed the locksmith industry, 18th century.
The industrial revolution generated the mass production of cheap industrial locks, which took the lucrative market of locksmithing away. Therefore, locksmiths had to become more specialised. There were two fields locksmiths could enter, they would either work as a repairman for industrial locks and replicate keys for people who wanted more of them available for personal use, or work for large security companies who designed and built safes for banks and governments.
From this period the locks we all know today were created.
The first serious attempt to improve security was created by Robert Barron in 1778, he patented a double acting tumbler lock. This enormous advance in lock design remains the basic principle of all lever locks, however it offered little resistance to a determined lock picker.
In 1784 Joseph Bramah created an alternative method which worked from an entirely different principle. His locks used a round key with notches along the surface. These notches would move metal slides that would interfere with the opening of the lock, at the time it was said to be unpickable. Bramah was so confident on its level of security that he exhibited one in his London shop and offered £200 (Around £40,000 in today’s money) to the first person would could open it.
Another famous lock was created after a burglary occurred in Portsmouth dock in 1817, which lead the British government to create a competition to produce a more superior lock. Jeremiah Chubb, who developed the Chubb detector lock, won the competition after a lock picker in prison was given the task of picking the lock with his freedom offered as a reward. He gave up after failing to it open it for 3 months. This lock not only made it difficult for someone to pick it, it would also indicate to the locks owner if it had been tampered with. Jeremiah and his brother Charles then started up their own lock company, Chubb. Over the next couple of decades, they made vast improvements to the standard lock and key systems, including using six levers compared to the standard four.
Bramah’s lock and the Chubb detector lock remained unpicked until the great exhibition in 1851 where Alfred Charles Hobbs opened both of them.
Another major improvement in locks was the double acting pin tumbler lock, the earliest patent for this design was granted in 1805, however the modern version, which is still used today, was invented in 1848 by Linus Yale, his lock design used pins of different lengths to stop the lock from opening without the correct key. In 1860s, his son Linus Yale Jr evolved the Yale cylinder lock, with its small, flat key with a serrated edge, now probably the most familiar lock and key in the world.
The world’s first successful key-changeable combination lock was created in 1873 by James Sergeant. With four tumblers each having 100 numbers creates one hundred million possible combinations. This combined with the possibility of changing the right combination made it desirable for safe manufactures.
In the present day, locksmiths tend to work out of a workshop or from a mobile locksmith vans. They sell, install, maintain and repair locks and other security devices.
Locksmiths have to apply skills in metalwork, woodwork, mechanics and electronics. Many tend to focus on the residential sector or work for commercial security companies. However, they can also specialise in other aspects like being a forensic locksmiths or in a particular area such as auto locks.
The future of locksmiths
With electronic locks becoming more of a common site, it’s not too farfetched to suggest electronic locks could be used in the majority of the UK in the future, locksmiths would then have to adapt to be able to open electronic doors.
As one of the oldest professions you can be sure that the future of locksmithing will adapt to wherever locks go, when new locks are made locksmiths will find a way to unlock them.
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