A Brief History of Locksmithing & Locks [Updated]

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A Brief History of the Locksmithing Trade & Locks 2020 [Updated]

Like other traditional trades, locksmithing possesses a rich and extensive history. Locksmithing has evolved from its humble, ancient roots to the technologically modernized industry it is today.

Let’s explore the fascinating history of this important craft and learn how locksmithing has changed over time and has yet maintained continuity and tradition.

The Ancient Origins of Locksmithing

Egyptian pin lock reproduction
A modern replica of an Assyrian/Egyptian pin lock which originated around 1000 BCE. Source: Smith College.

Locksmithing is thought to have been born out of ancient Egypt and Babylon around 4,000 years ago. This makes locksmithing one of the oldest professions in history. Keys are mentioned in the Old Testament in the book of Judges, which was written in approximately 1170 BC.

The first locks made by early locksmiths were rather large and clumsy, and unlike locks made today, were constructed of wood. Pins within these locks could be manipulated with a wooden key. Locks were used by trade merchants and other travelers to protect their belongings from thieves. The oldest example of these ancient locks is from Assyria and is dated to around 704 BC.

Although ancient locks may seem clunky compared to modern mechanisms, they were the forerunners to more advanced systems and are thus important to acknowledge. Locks and keys eventually migrated to Greece, Rome, and even as far as China.

ancient Roman keys and locks
Examples of ancient roman keys and locks. Sarah E. Bond CC BY-SA

The wealthy classes of Roman civilization kept their valuables locked away, and carried keys as rings to present their status to others. Excavations at Pompeii uncovered a number of keys and locks owned by upper class people.

Medieval Locksmithing: A Turning Point in the Evolution of the Trade

iron bolt on medieval door
Iron bolt locks were very popular during the Middle Ages. Josep Bracons CC BY-SA

A major innovation occurred in locksmithing in the early middle ages: the widespread use of metal. Simple iron bolt locks became popular in England and spread across Europe and Asia throughout the medieval time period. An early example of a spring lock from the middle ages is one found in a Viking settlement near York, England dating from 850.

Other evidence of modernized locks and keys come from medieval art. Paintings and illuminated manuscripts depict padlocks and keys owned by nobles. The famous Bayeux Tapestry depicts a duke handing the keys of his town over to William the Conqueror. Written records from the 1300s also describe the purchase of locks and keys.

ornate lock from the Middle Ages
As metalworkers became more skilled with their craft, locks were designed to be both more complex and aesthetic. Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

The aesthetics of locks improved dramatically between the 14th and 17th centuries and locksmiths became skilled metalworkers and began decorating products with ornate designs suitable for nobility. Chinese locksmiths oftentimes decorated their locks with detailed dragons and horses and presented their work as gifts to royalty.

Despite advancements in the appearance of locks and keys, it is worth noting that the actual mechanisms within these locks did not improve much during this time.

Fetterlock illustration
The fetterlock was very important during this period, often being used to secure livestock. Arthur Charles Fox-Davies / Public domain

Despite a lack of extreme technical advancements during the middle ages, locksmiths still created strong locks and felt constant pressure to outwit thieves. One lock that was very important in this era was a fetterlock, which secured livestock within their pasture.

To discourage burglary in homes, locksmiths oftentimes installed more than one lock on a door. It was not uncommon for armories, treasuries, and other important places to have up to a dozen locks on their doors. With husbands away at seemingly endless battles during the middle ages, women became the masters of the household keys and kept them on their person at all times.

Medieval locksmith in his workshop
A depiction of a 14th century locksmith.

During the middle ages, locksmiths worked within organized guilds. These guilds set the rules and guidelines by which locksmiths agreed to work. At first, locksmith businesses operated within blacksmith guilds, since their work involved similar materials and techniques.

Eventually, locksmiths formed their own guild and operated as separate from other metalworkers. Guilds stipulated that locksmiths work within city limits and that prices be set by mayors or city councils. The rules for locksmiths were particularly strict to prevent thievery and burglary by the locksmiths.

Locks and Keys in the 18th Century

Chubb brothers' lock
After the invention of the tumbler lock, the Chubb Brothers took the design further with a form of relocker, which hunders unauthorised access and indicates to the lock’s owner that it has been interfered with.

By the 1700s, metalworking and locksmithing advanced enough to improve the way locks worked. Robert Barron introduced the lever tumbler lock in 1778, which required more precision to open than its counterparts. This lock was thus more secure and is still in use today.

Other innovators of this time period include the Chubb brothers, Joseph Bramah, and Linus Yale. Their locks were unpickable at the time and are still used by modern locksmiths.

Louis XVI of France locksmithing
Louis XVI of France was fascinated by locks and a skilled locksmith, often working with his personal forge in his private apartments at Versailles.

Locksmithing proved to be both a profitable profession for working class men and a hobby for royalty like Louis XVI of France. While better known for being one of France’s weakest kings, Louis was mechanically brilliant and excelled at locksmithing in his free time.

The king learned what he knew from his royal locksmith Francois Gamain and commissioned a lockbox for sensitive documents. Louis’s interest in locksmithing as a royal person was considered unusual, and was commented on frequently by his contemporaries.

The work of 18th century locksmiths closely resembled that of blacksmiths and other metalworkers. The skills required by these craftsmen overlapped quite a bit and workers were expected to understand the basics of locks and keys regardless of their title. Locksmiths used a forge and anvil, and blacksmiths knew how to make simple locks and keys. However, locksmiths at this time were also skilled with lathe turning, spring tempering, screw making, fitting, and hole punching, among other industry-specific techniques.

modern locksmith repairing a locker
With the rise in industrial manufacturing, locksmithing shifted to more repair and maintenance work. Cory Doctorow CC BY-SA

Despite many innovations during this time period, locksmithing underwent its most serious change as mass production and large-scale industry became the default and pushed small craftsmen out of business. Many locksmiths adapted by becoming repairmen and advertising themselves as specialists.

Key replication and locksmithing for large banks and companies became more widespread. These roles continue to be popular today as modern locksmiths contend with constant industry advancements and new security threats.

Concluding Thoughts

Locksmithing has evolved considerably since ancient times, yet has maintained a sense of tradition. The major eras of locksmithing history: ancient times, the middle ages, and the industrial revolution beginning in the 18th century brought about major changes to the trade and forced locksmiths to adapt and use their skills to keep up with the needs of their clients.

The core techniques of locksmithing and the characteristics required of locksmiths remain the same regardless of time.

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