Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Heads or Tails #6 - Keys

Skittles has started a new meme for every Tuesday called visit her blog for instructions. Basically she gives us a word and we can do whatever we like with it. That can't be too hard, can it? This week the subject is 'Keys'.

Have you ever wondered how keys and locks developed into the components we take so much for granted today? There has probably been less development over the centuries than you might imagine!

Keeping property safe and secure has been a preoccupation of mankind since the dawn of civilization. The ancient Egyptians, over 3500 years ago, used bolts with wooden pegs and bars in a system not at all unlike our modern pin and tumbler locks, so there is an argument for saying that not a lot separates their achievements from those of Linus Yale in the mid - 19th century.

However, though many of the basic designs of lock may be recognizable throughout history, a great deal of change took place in the craft and workmanship of those designs that reflects our own industrial history.

The Romans were as accomplished as locksmiths as they were in many other spheres. Working in iron and bronze, with some amazing decorative padlocks depicting birds and beasts, they tended to concentrate on 'warded' locks, where so-called wards or obstructions prevent any but the right key from being inserted. These differed from the Egyptian pin-tumbler style, which remained undeveloped for many centuries to come.

The Middle Ages really do little more than chart the developing complexity of warded locks, which became so intricate and extravagant in their workmanship that each craftsman would vie with the next to produce more decoration and figurative design. So, while these years saw the development of locksmithing as creative art form, very little was done to improve the products mechanically.

It was not until 1778 that Robert Barron, returning to the Egyptian tumbler principle, produced his double acting lever lock, which gave rise to the later improvements of Joseph Bramah and Jeremiah Chubb. In the following century the English market, celebrating the 1851 Great Exhibition, was alarmed by an American lockmaker, Hobbs, who claimed to be able to pick any lock in Britain - a boast that he went on the fulfil. This was a severe blow to the pride of the security-conscious Victorians, who set about lockmaking with a new vigour. However, it is to two Americans, Linus Yale Snr. And Jnr., that the credit must go for developing the ultimate answer the cylinder lock. Not only was this lock, based on Egyptian pin-tumbler principles, much more secure than any predecessor, but it was also cheap to manufacture in quantity. Yale Snr. Produced a round-pin lock, but his son perfected the device further in 1861-5 with a flat-pin design that was ideal for mass-production. The rest, as they say, is history.

England has always been a centre of lock-making, Conditions were harsh and brutal in these 'sweatshop' workplaces, with child labour producing many of the necessary components and blanks.

Today, for the most part, automatic production methods and computerized security systems have replaced the skills of hand manufacture. But when you next buy a humble padlock think a little about its origins and development from that all-wood Egyptian original. History can be briefer than you might think!

View more participants in the "Heads or Tails" meme.


Misty Dawn said...

Wow - you really put a lot of thought, time, and research into this post! Awesome!

Skittles said...

Darn it Misty said what I was going to say! I'll say it anyway.. :)

You really put a lot of work into this. It was very interesting to read about the history locks. I had never really thought of it before.


Siani said...

What an impressive post - so much detail. It must have taken a fair bit of research and work - thanks for such a detailed and interesting history lesson. Have a good week!

Vic Grace said...

Well I didn't really put that much thought into it. I am good at research and found the information on the internet.

Jeni said...

And there you have it - "The Rest of the Story!" Great job, Vic!

meeyauw said...

neat post! how little has changed in all these thousands of years. we can't trust anymore now than back then.