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A Look into Locks

“Lock and Key: the distinguishing device of civilization and enlightenment” Ambrose Bierce

Have you ever wondered how the lock was invented, or who was the genius behind this taken for granted piece of technology? Well, look no further!

To start things off, no one knows exactly who invented the lock. Historians today are uncertain which ancient civilization was the one who invented mechanical locks. What we do know is that it was discovered around 6,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt. The lock was introduced in the Near East, and the oldest known lock that could be unlocked by a key was the Egyptian lock. This oldest known lock was uncovered in the ruins of Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria.

What did the locks look like back in those days? Let’s take a look!

This is how an ancient door lock (re-created by TFAHR) looks like. Click on either picture to watch the video and see how it works (skip to 9:25)!

This is how an ancient key looks like. Would you want to carry this key around? I know I don’t want to! Thanks to the Romans for their invention of smaller keys that we can now put in our pockets!

How did these locks work? Now, this gets real interesting so continue reading!

First of all, it was thought that the earliest locks were made from a rope and tied into a knot to make it into a lock. This was done only to see if anyone attempted to open them. Then, wood was used in the making of locks where a simple bar of wood was put across the door. This made it easy to open from the outside as an opening to size of a hand was made into the door so that it could be opened and closed when you are on either side of the door. Hence, the Egyptians decided to make modifications to the lock because it was, unsafe and probably boring! They added wooden pegs (tumblers) to the lock that would fit into holes in a bolt. This meant that the bolt would not budge until the pegs were lifted out. The key to this lock consisted of pins that lifted the pegs from the holes so that the lock could be opened. The locks were up to 61 cm long and their keys were long, wooden bars that looked like a toothpick. It is thanks to the tumblers (the wooden pegs) that fell into place by their own weight that gave rise to modern locks.

Enough of all the talking about how the ancient lock works. Curious to see how it works instead? Watch the video to see how TFAHR re-created the ancient lock and it works (full video)!



Did you know? The Greeks tried to improve the locks but their ‘improved’ locks proved far too insecure to be used (nice try though).


Back to the design of the locks. The next group of people that we cannot leave out in the design and improvement of the locks are the Romans. They were the ones who used metals to create their locks, which can still be identified today. Unlike the Egyptians whose locks required long wooden keys, the locks that the Romans came up with only needed small keys that were more portable and convenient. At the same time, wards were being created, so that the lock could be unlocked with only the right key. This improvement was the first step to the modification of the Egyptian lock (remember the pin tumbler locks?) that sparked the advancement to the modern locks we have.

However, after the demise of the Roman Empire in 1 CE, locksmiths stopped coming up with new ideas for locks, or improving the locks they had at that time as they did not have the means to produce new security measure during the Dark Ages. However, that did not stop them from trying to stop others from picking locks. They invented different key mechanisms, complex key motifs, blocked the keyholes with elaborate decorations, and even made false keyholes coupled with fake mechanisms inside to throw off lock-pickers.

Things picked up again in the 18th century but we will leave that for another time.

So… Why did they invent the lock? Back in the days, they probably realized that unwanted people had easy access to their homes, which prompted some to think of a mechanism that could keep their homes safe. Hence, the lock was born! The lock had other purposes too, like keeping their valuables locked up in a chest so that only the owners of the chest could open it up.

Imagine having to stay up all night just to ensure that no one breaks into your house. Luckily we don't have to do that thanks to the invention of locks and keys! Locks, locks, locks. What would we do without you today!