Schlage's History of Locks!
An Introduction to the History of Locks
Locks and keys were known long before the birth of
Christ. They are mentioned frequently in the Old
Testament and in mythology. In the Book of
Nehemiah, chapter 3, it is stated that when repairing
the old gates of the City of Jerusalem - probably in
445 B.C. - they "set up the doors thereof, and the
locks thereof, and the bars thereof." At this time,
locks were made of wood. They were large and
crude in design; yet their principle of operation was
the forerunner of the modern pin-tumbler locks of today.
As locksmiths and metal workers became proficient in their craft, they were
invited to make locks and keys for the Royal Courts and for the churches and
cathedrals of Europe. They excelled in elaborate and high and highly detailed
ornamentation - often adapted to the religious theme.
Security was a Guardian Angel
In India, in the days of the Emperor of Annam,
valuables were sealed into large blocks of wood,
which were placed on small islands or submerged
into surrounding pools of the inner courts of the
palace. Here, they were protected by the royal
"guardian angels," a number of crocodiles kept on
starvation rations so they were always hungry. To
venture into the water meant certain death for the
intruder. The legitimate approach to the treasure was
to drug or kill the crocodiles.
Security was a Knotted Rope
For many hundreds of years, cords of ropes
made of rush and fiber were used to "lock" doors
and tie up walls. The legend goes, a knotted rope
became a famous symbol of security. Intricately
tied by Gordius, King of Phrygia, and known by his name, the Gordian Knot,
secured the yoke to the shaft of his chariot. Its untying was pronounced by
oracles to be possible only by the man destined to conquer Asia. However,
when Alexander the Great failed to undo the Gordian Knot, he cut it swiftly
with his sword, giving us the expression, "to cut the Gordian Knot," meaning a
bold, decisive action, effective when milder
Locks from the Orient
Brass and iron padlocks found in Europe and the
Far East were popularized by the Romans and
the Chinese. They were particularly favored
because they were portable. They operated by
keys that turned, screwed, and pushed. The
push-key padlock was of simple construction, the
bolt kept in locked position by the projection of a spring or springs. To unlock,
the springs were compressed or flattened by the key, which freed the bolt and
permitted it to slide back. Padlocks of this type are most universally used in
the Orient today. The decoration reflects the arts of the countries, and shapes
often took the form of animals - dragons, horses, dogs, even elephants and
hippopotamuses. Padlocks were often presented in pairs as gifts, with
congratulatory messages in cuneiform characters.
"Firsts" in Development of Locks
The first mechanical locks, made of wood, were
probably created by a number of civilizations at
the same time. Records show them in use some
4,000 years ago in Egypt. Fastened vertically on the door post, the wooden
lock contained moveable pins or "pin tumblers," that dropped by gravity into
openings in the cross piece or "bolt," and locked the door. It was operated by
a wooden key with pegs or prongs that raised the number of tumblers
sufficiently to clear the bolt so that it could be pulled back. This method of
locking was the forerunner of modern pin tumbler locks.
The first all-metal lock appeared between the years 870 and 900, and are
attributed to the English craftsmen. They were simple bolts, made of iron with
wards (obstructions) fitted around the keyholes to prevent tampering.
The first use of wards (fixed projections in a lock) was introduced by the
Romans who devised obstructions to "ward off" the entry or turning of the
wrong key. Wards were notched and cut into decorative designs, and warding
became a basic locking mechanism for more than a thousand years. The first
padlocks were "convenient" locks as they could be carried and used where
necessary. They were known in early times to merchants traveling ancient
trade routes to Asia and Europe.
New concepts for locking devices were developed in Europe in the 17th
century. Early Bramah locks utilized a series of sliders in a circular pattern to
provide exceptional security. Bramah is the oldest lock company in the world
and is continuing to manufacture its famous mechanism 200 years later.
The first wooden lock was discovered in Persia
as Khorsabad in security gate in the palace of
Sargon II, who reigned from 722 to 705 B.C. In
appearance and operation, it was very similar to
this wooden cane-tumbler locks. The pegs at the
bit end of the key correspond to the bars, or the
tumblers, in the bolt. When inserted, the pegs
lifted the tumblers so that the bolt could be
retracted and the door or gate could opened.
Locks from the Old World
Designs of locks and keys were notably
influenced by gothic architecture with evermore
elaborate ornamentation continuing into the period of the Renaissance.
Master locksmiths were invited to make locks for noblemen throughout
Europe. Because of this practice, it is difficult to document an antique lock as
having been produced specifically in the country where it was in use centuries
German Castle Locks
The period from the 14th through the 17th century
was one of artistic accomplishment by superb
craftsmen. Locksmiths were skilled metalworkers
who were becoming internationally famous. They
were invited to construct special locks for noblemen throughout Europe. Using
designs of coats-of-arms and symbolic shapes, they devised intricate wards
and bits for locks and keys and were inspired to produce increasingly
ornamental locks to harmonize with the architecture of their clients' estates or
castles. However, there were few improvements in locking mechanisms.
Security depended upon intricacies such as hidden keyholes, trick devices,
and complicated warding.
Security in the 14th and 15th Centuries
There was little significant improvement in locking
mechanisms in the 14th and 15th centuries.
However, ornamentation became increasingly
elaborate. Craftsmen excelled in metal work and
designed and produced locks for gates, doors,
chests, and cupboards. A "Masterpiece" lock was never used on a door. It
was designed and produced as a one-of-a-kind by a journeyman locksmith, or
iron monger as a "test" to qualify him as a Master. Masterpiece locks were
often displayed without covers to show the component parts of the
mechanisms, their functions, the decorative designs of lockcases, and method
Padlocks were known early in time to the Greeks,
Romans, Egyptians, and other cultures of the
Near East, including the Chinese. It was believed
that the padlock was first used as a "travel" lock
to protect merchandise from brigands along
ancient trade routes and seaboards and
waterways where commerce was centered. Made
in small sizes to those of tremendous proportions,
they represented various geometric shapes, religious symbols, animals, fish,
birds, hearts. They were operated by keys that turned, screwed, pushed, and
pulled. For better efficiency, letter locks, or combination padlocks, were
developed, which eliminated keys and operated by alignment of letters or
numbers on revolving disks. Shown here is an American padlock dating back
to the turn-of-the-century. In the popular circular shape, this lock was probably
used on a huge strongbox. It has a single ward (obstruction) which the key
bypasses to project the bolt.
Padlocks were used throughout the centuries to
lock prisoners and possessions. They were
usually made of iron, bronze, or brass, and were
rugged in construction. However, internal locking
mechanisms were often fairly simple and easy to
This massive Russian padlock shown here was
meticulously hand-forged early in the reign of the
last Czar, Nicholas II (1895-1918). The large
circular ring on the top is the "handle" or bow of a threaded key which is
rotated into the keyhole to disengage the locking mechanism. When the
shackle is in the locking position, the key is removed, and the plug is inserted
to give the illusion that there is no keyhole. The threaded portion of the key is
then screwed into its protective cover.
As lock-picking became an art in the 18th
century, the inventor met the challenge of the
burglar with increasingly complicated locking
mechanisms. Among the new improvements
were keys with changeable bits, "curtain closed-out" around keyholes to
prevent tampering, alarm bells combined with the action of the bolt, and
"puzzle" or ring padlocks, with this principle developing into dial face and bank
vault locks, operating without keys and known as combination locks.
The early puzzle padlocks were Oriental with from three to seven rings of
characters or letters which released the hasp when properly aligned. The dial
locks were similar in operation, and both types were combinated to unlock to
words or patterns of numbers known only to the owners or responsible
At the left is the Eureka, a manipulation-proof combination lock with five
tumblers. For a faithful bank vault used at one time in the U.S. Treasury
Department. Patented in 1862 by Dodds, MacNeal, and Urban of Canton,
Ohio. The operating dial is a combination of letters and numbers and affords
1,073,741,824 combinations; to run through them all without interruption
would take 2,042 years, 324 days, and 1 hour.
Castle and Chest Locks
During the gothic era, followed by the exuberant
influence of the Renaissance, master locksmiths
were inspired to product the most intricate and
the finest ornamental locks of all time. This was the period
when iron craftsmen and lock artisans became internationally
famous. They excelled in the forging, embossing, engraving,
chafing, and etching of metals, and were invited to make
locks and keys for the courts of Europe. Shown here is a
spring latch lock for a castle door. Its working mechanism is
concealed in the classic dome, or ward house, that shows
the Moorish influence. Ornamented in the style of the period
with mythical figures and scrolls, it is particularly noteworthy
as it illustrates the coloring of metal, similar to the "niello" process. As the
craftsman lacked color, he created various stains for metal, which he used for
backgrounds to highlight his design.
Locks for Treasure Chests
Since the earliest times, chests were secured
with strong and frequently very large locks. They
were used to protect precious metals, money,
jewels, to store clothing, and church vestments,
archives and arms, linens and other household
articles, bridal finery, and even for burial of important people. Chest locks
were ornamented for household use, or were very plain and sturdy for chests
that were to be transported. Generally, they were mounted inside the chest, in
a vertical position, with bolts spreading to slide into the lid keeper.
The Key was a Latchstring
In pioneering days of Colonial America, the "key" to the lock of the house
often hung on the outside of the door. It was a length of string. Doors were
latched on the inside with a pivoted wooded bar or bolt, one end dropping into
a slot in the jamb. Attached was a piece of string that was threaded through a
small hole to the outside. To the visitor, the dangling string was an immediate
welcome, as pulling on it, raised the bolt and opened the door. This lock and
key became the origin of our expression of hospitality, "the latch
string is always out."
There were No Secrets in Madrid
Several centuries ago, in Spain, there was a great distrust of locks.
To be safe, the householders of a block hired a watchman to patrol
the neighborhood and carry the keys to their dwellings. To enter or
leave a house, the resident clapped his hands vigorously to
summon the watchman with his key, so, all comings and goings
became a matter of public record and there was little chance for "hanky
panky" in old Madrid.
Marie Antoinette's Husband was a Locksmith
His name was Louis, Louis XVI, King of France. Louis
didn't particularly like the business of being a king, but
he had an extraordinary interest in mechanical labor.
He spent many happy hours in his house workshop
forging metal and making locks, skills taught to him by
a locksmith named Gamin. He was particularly proud
of an iron security cabinet which we concealed in a
wall to protect his private papers. Unfortunately, Louis didn't reckon with the
Revolutionists, as his secret hiding place was revealed by Gamin, and
his papers incriminated him. History says, poor Louis, he was as good
a locksmith as he was a bad king.
Safecracking Under Seas
As a child, Charles Courtney was intrigued with everything mechanical
that he could fix or take apart. He was especially fascinated with locks,
and so began his lifelong career as a lock expert. However, he had
resolved to become a diver and do all the things his great, great uncle,
Jules Verne, a novelist, had described in his famous book, Twenty
Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. Years later, Charles Courtney
realized his dream. Because of his talent for picking locks, he was
hired as a diver to open safes on sunken ships. He was the first to
do a locksmithing job 400 feet under water, and he recovered
many millions of dollars for the salvage companies. Charles Courtney
achieved international fame as a Master Locksmith, also known as a collector
of antique locks, many of them now a part of the Schlage collection.
The Safemakers and the Yeggs
Country banks, in the early 1800s were housed in crude buildings. Safes were
simple wooden shafts or strongboxes reinforced with sheet iron and secured
with padlocks. It was "easy money" for criminal to break in and smash the
safe, or carry it away for "cracking" in privacy. So began the race between
safemakers and safe breakers, or "yeggs" as they were called. Manufacturers
started to build solid iron safes with key-operated deadbolt locks; yeggs soon
defeated them by pouring explosives into the keyholes and blowing the doors
off their hinges. For better protection, lock makers developed combination
locks without keyholes, later combining them with tiny mechanism. Vaults of
steel and concrete were built into the structures of banks. Multiple locking
procedures were devised and so passed the era of the yegg.
To Please a Lady
Catherine the Great, Czarina of Russia from 1762
to 1796, had one of the most notable lock
collections of her time. She admired the fine
workmanship of artisans who designed
ornamental faceplates for locks and created
padlocks in fanciful forms to please a lady or a
favored child. It is said that a famous Russian locksmith gained his freedom
from banishment to Siberia my making a chain for Catherine. She was so
impressed with his craftsmanship that she pardoned him. As the story goes,
this incident is credited with the origin of a saying that "it takes 89 keys to
unlock a prison."
In the mid 1700s, locks were few in the Colonies
and most were copies of European mechanisms.
With the founding of the Republic and the new
prosperity, there was a growing demand for
sturdy door locks, padlocks, and locks for safes and vaults, and so the
American lock industry had its start. Each native craftsman had his own ideas
about security, and between 1774 and 1920, American lockmakers patented
some 3,000 varieties of lock devices. Among was
the patent for a "domestic lock," by Linus Yale,
Sr. This lock was a modification of an old
Egyptian pin-tumbler principle that utilized a
In the early 1920s, Walter Schlage advanced the
concept of a cylindrical pin-tumbler lock by
placing a push-button locking mechanism
between the two knobs. Emphasis was on security; yet equally important to
the modern architect and decorator, the lock became an intricate part of the
door design. It was now possible to select complimentary styles of locks,
metals, and finishes. Shown here is a rim lock from Fort Sumter at Charleston
Harbor, South Carolina. The Fort was the site of the start of the Civil War. On
April 12, 1861, the Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, a federal
garrison. After a bombardment of 36 hours, the Fort surrendered on April 14.
The lock was found by Captain James Kelly, formerly a blockade runner,
when he was delivering materials for the rebuilding of Fort Sumter at the close
of the Civil War.
The revolutionary Schlage lock is a completely different concept of a
cylindrical lock with the button-in-the-knob mechanism placed between the
knobs, introduced by Walter Schlage in the early 1920s.
Elegance in Metal
During the Middle Ages, locks and keys were
highly ornate. Iron began to be worked cold. It
was no longer necessary for the smith to work
quickly at the forge; he now used a file, a cold
chisel, and a saw with extraordinary dexterity.
The master locksmith designed special locks for cathedrals and churches in
the shape of a cross and embellished them with elaborate decorations. He
acquired expert skills in repoussé , ornametations, overlays, embossing,
chaffing, piercing, and created delicate fretwork in the popular scroll and leaf
patterns of the period.
Above is a Spanish chuck lock and key with hinged hasp and rim or lockplate
with pairs of facing animals. Belonging to Queen Isabella, this lock was
probably used to secure a storage chest that may have contained her royal
robe and personal fortune.
The Mystique of the Key
For many centuries, keys represented authority,
security, and power. Gods, goddesses, and
saints are described as holders of the keys to the
Kingdom of Heaven, to Bottomless Pit, to Gates
of Earth and Sea. Kings, emperors, nobles of the
court, and cities and towns incorporated the
symbol of the key into banners, coats of arms and official seals. The delivery
of keys to a castle, fortress, or city was a ceremonial event, as
is the presentation of the Key-To-The-City today to a visiting
Shown here is a large Roman key.
Keys from the Time of Nero to Queen Victoria
The key was a symbol of man's status, his authority. Many
centuries ago in Egypt, the importance of the "head of the
household" was determined by the number of keys he owned; they
were large and were carried by slaves on their shoulders. Should
he have several slaves, or key bearers, he was considered to be a
man of great wealth and distinction. So, through the ages, the lock
and its key have become an intricate part of our culture. Locking up
personal property, the key symbolizes our desire for privacy and
security for our possessions. This emblem of keys from the early
Roman period to the 19th century may include a master key or two, but there
are no duplicates.
The Ceremony of the Keys
If you have visited the Tower of London, you will remember the warder,
dressed in a red tunic and wearing a Tudor hat and ruff. Familiarly, he is
called a Beefeater. Specifically, he is an Honorary Yeoman of the Guards, a
member of the Queen's bodyguard. If you spoke to him, you may have heard
the story of the Ceremony of the Keys. Every night, the Chief Warder locks
the Tower gates and brings the keys to headquarters in the ancient fortress.
The sentry calls out "Halt! Who comes there?" "The Keys." "Whose keys?"
"Queen Elizabeth's keys." Everyone presents arms and the warder calls out,
"God preserve Queen Elizabeth." The guard responds, "Amen." Tonight and
every night, this traditional ceremony of Britain continues. The yeoman
repeats the same words that have never been changed in 450 years.