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History of Locksmithing: The Beginning

history of locksmithing

History of Locksmithing: Locksmithing is a profession with its name in the sands of time. It is ancient yet much respected among all the professions of the world, this respect is largely attributed to how creative minds with their hard work and dedication have provided security and total peace of mind for other individuals in various walks of life over the years. Many are blinded to this truth and it’s no fault of theirs as the mainstream media rarely include locksmiths in their list of creative minds and great thinkers.

Here is why I think locksmiths worldwide should be specially recognized for their services; throughout centuries, our forefathers before us had all depended on locks and keys, same with our fathers and we the millennials are no exception, save for the fact that the type of lock and keys we use in the 21st century have all be digitized. The bottom line is, without locksmiths, there wouldn’t be locks and locking mechanisms that will help keep our properties, offices, apartments, loved ones and ourselves safe.

Locksmithing history dates as far back as 4000 years ago and the earliest people blessed with the knowledge availed themselves in Babylon and Ancient Egypt. Locksmithing in all its glory is all about designing and producing of locks, keys, locking mechanisms and all other hardware that helps with the security of whatever it is you want to be secured, be it files in a cabinet, books in a backpack, clothes in a traveling bag or money in a safe.

Like in every other aspect of life, change remains constant, this logic is behind how locksmithing has refused to stay same over the years, the profession and the techniques used in getting the desired results underwent changes, ones that can be considered, based on the individual’s perspective, a blessing and a curse. Back in the days, the larger percentage of Locksmithing works had always been about file works with a sprinkle of metal works, crafting of metals into whatever forms they so desired and thus creating dozens of handmade locks.

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History of Locksmithing – The Details

First of all, watch this interesting history of locksmithing video:

In the early development years of locksmithing and the earliest years of locksmiths, wooden devices that employ the tumbler principle to prevent free movement of the door bar was the order of the day and according to earliest histories, it was the most advanced form of home security locksmiths could come up with for the residents of Babylon and ancient Egypt. The only way to unlock such wooden locks was with a key-like tool that is way too large for a key and shaped in the form of a toothbrush when inserted, this large wooden key moves the pins inside of the lock and gets the door unlocked, it was as easy as that.

To further reinforce this fact and dispel what some might consider as a rumor, one of the earlier described lock was found by archaeologist in a city near Nineveh (reference to the story of Jonah who was sent to this particular city in the Bible, he went off course and according to the story, was swallowed by a giant shark where he was kept undigested for a few days before being barfed up at the seashore). The wooden lock discovered at the said site was examined and estimated to have been in existence since 704BC.

As against the 21st century where just about anyone can have access to locks and keys, heck, even youngsters who are a bit insecure about their peers at school and at the gym have tiny padlocks and keys for their backpacks, it was not so in years past, only the rich who have valuables to protect order for locks to be specially made for their riches chest, the wealthy Romans especially keep all of their valuables under lock and key. These wealthy men tend to show off just how rich and important they are by wearing the keys to their locked valuables as a ring, a gesture which passes a message to anyone who cared that the bearer of such key rings is wealthy enough to afford a lock and apparently have things of interest to protect.

Design and lock mechanism-wise, not too much evolution occurred in the locksmithing industry until around 900AD when metal locks slowly began rolling into the market for commercial use. These locks were attributed to English craftsmen and the mechanism behind them is a simple iron bolt. Soon after, locks made of brass and iron were scattered all over Europe and Chinese provinces, these new set of locks operated differently from the wooden lock which can only be unlocked by a large wooden stick that can only be turned in an upward motion.

The simple iron bolt locks could be screwed, turned and pushed. As the locksmithing profession began to gain grounds, locksmiths became widely recognized as talented metal workers who went from designing large locks to medium sized artistic or simply put, beautiful and interesting ones. Locksmiths became a hot cake and they were often made to leave their workshop on request, by wealthy and royal families to help make customized locks to show off their wealth and social status. Back when sigils and house symbols were a thing, locksmiths were paid to create locks with the sigil of royal and wealthy families. The improvement to locks was not only in design and looks, but the locking mechanism also experienced some sort of improvements in the 18th century, an incentive which led to the creation of more durable and secure locks.

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During the same century that paved way for an innovative breakthrough in the locksmithing industry, the evolution in lock designs turned around to be a bane to the locksmithing industry as wealthy individuals and businessmen who could take the risk and hit of a bad business took to mass production of beautifully designed locks. These locks were everywhere, a phenomenon which can be largely attributed to their ridiculously cheap prices, this singular act nearly pushed experienced and new locksmiths alike out of work but they improvised and adapted to the new working environment.

What used to be a lucrative business turned around to be a competitive market where only the strong survived. Locksmiths diversified from just making locks to being specialized as repairmen of industrial locks, a job description which entails repair of damaged gear, replacement of damaged industrial-made lock parts with those that are handcrafted. Others make key duplicates for those who are in need of them for personal use while those who have been tested and trusted over the years moved to the top of the ladder by working for security companies who design and build bank safes and vaults for government parastatals.

As earlier noted about the advancement in the design of locks and keys, it was not only about the size or the outlook, the locking mechanism was also factored into the changes made, changes which increased the complexities and sophistication of locks and keys. In the year 1778, a renowned locksmith, Robert Barron brought about the lever tumbler lock and perfected its mechanism. This newly invented lever tumbler lock calls for the levers in the insides of the lock to be raised to a certain height be the key in order for it to give way to whoever it is prying at the lock. This locking mechanism was considered to be highly secured as lifting the lever tumblers way too high or not high enough keeps the lock in place, this lock is still in use in the 21st century as it guarantees against certain security threat, home, and office intruders especially.

Just like we have with hackers and bug hunters in today’s world, who hunt for bugs and security flaws in newly launched product for cash and other rewards, a burglary incident in 1817 prompted one of such competitions among locksmiths. The aim of the competition was to create a foolproof lock that will give lock pickers a hard time and eventually lead to their retreat and abandonment of the aim of trying to pick the lock in the first place.

The competition was won by one Jeremiah Chub who created a locking mechanism which was codenamed the Chubb detector lock as it can alert the owner when the lock has been pried and picked at. After the competition and submission of the various locks, every locksmith who participated submitted their end products, expert lock pickers were invited to pick at the submitted locks, only Chubb detector lock stood the test of time and three months after giving it a go without the desired result, Jeremiah Chubb was crowned as the winner of the competition. Winning the competition was encouragement and acknowledgment of Chubb’s locksmithing prowess, this pushed him to start up a locksmithing company with his brother Charles. The company which was called Chubb made massive improvements to locking mechanisms some of which included the increment of the standard locks lever from four to six, the inclusion of a disc which gives way to the key when inserted inside of the lock but gives any lock picker a hard time seeing the internal levers. This made it nearly unpickable until one which was said to be truly unpickable came around.

Joseph Braman who was also a locksmith at the said time, studies and made improvements to what the Chubb brothers had accomplished, Joseph’s improvement came about in 1784 and his locks employed the use of round keys with cuts along the shaft. These cuts are strategically placed where they will move metal slides that would interfere with the opening of the locks. Just like the Chubb detector lock, this new one has to be moved to a particular height before it can be unlocked. Another major improvement worthy of note is the double-acting pin tumbler lock.

This lock was initially designed in 1805 before the version that still in use today was reinvented by Linus Yale in 1848. This new design by Linus Yale employed the use of metal mechanisms of different lengths, a way to hinder the unauthorized opening of the lock. In 1861, Linus Yale worked on a more compact version of his newly invented lock, a design which turned out to be a success as the locks making use of his patented design are still in circulation in the 21st century.

The millennials have seen various improvements to locks and keys. As a matter of fact, the locking mechanisms have gone digital with Bluetooth locks, fingerprint locks, and pin padlocks. Asides the aforementioned, the mainstream locks are mostly improvements on the locking mechanism foundation that has been laid by the likes of Chubb, Braman, and Yale.

As of today, most locksmiths have their tools in a brick and mortar workshop or a mobile van that attends to all emergency needs.

The interesting bit of the history of locksmithing is the fact that most famous people who rocked the world with their talents were actively into locksmithing at one time or throughout their lifetime. One of such famous personalities is a renowned scientist, Albert Einstein who publicly made a comment about his regret for not towing the locksmithing lane instead of being an active part of a group behind several bombings that rocked Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War. Another famous person who was believed to be a locksmith alongside being a world-renowned magician is Harry Houdini.

Houdini who had locksmithing knowledge while he was an apprentice in a workshop, left the shop to cash in big on his knowledge, he from there became an escape artist who escapes from all sort of deadly situations while being locked with heavy chains and locks. This list of famous locksmiths who have walked the earth is endless, trying to fit them all in this write-up will definitely make it longer than intended.

One thing that should be noted about locksmiths is the fact that they played a vital role in the history of locksmithing and they continue to be a crucial part of today’s society with their vast knowledge of woods, metals, locks, and keys.

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