31 Jan The Long-awaited Origin Story: Locks & Keys
Are you excited for a history lesson? Because that’s what we’re doing today. We recently discussed smart locks, and how we’re truly living in the future. I thought it might be fun to wander back a bit and see where locks started.
This is a reproduction by Smith College’s Ancient Inventions Museum of one of the earliest known locks. Originating in Egypt, this ancient version of a pin tumbler is remarkably similar to what we use today. We’ve discussed previously how a modern version of this works. The notches in a key arrange the pins so they’ll let the key turn and the door to open. Obviously things are a little simpler on this antique.
So the door is held shut by a bolt, which would’ve been a standard way of keeping your door shut in those days. But anyone can pull the bolt out of a door, so what if you want to limit that number? The solution here is a hollow bolt. The center has an opening, with a couple of chambers drilled into it for the pins. When closed, the pins will fall into the chambers, putting up resistance when you try to pull the bolt.
The key is the toothbrush-looking piece of wood you see in the picture. When inserted, the pegs line up with the chambers, pushing the pins up and out of the bolt, allowing its removal. To lock it again, you just put the bolt back and let the pins do the work.
You might think this is really easy to pick. And you wouldn’t be wrong exactly. Theoretically you might even be able to move the pins with your hand. But these bolts and keys were usually between one and two feet, so it’s a bit of a reach. Another cool thing is that these locks are one-way, meaning they only function from either inside or outside of the room. So they’re really good for keeping people from following you into your room, but also great for the dungeon in your basement. I don’t know what you keep in there, no judgements, just something to consider.
The Keys to Rome
So when the Romans showed up and started stealing things (as they did), they understandably made some changes to locks. First, they made them much smaller (because who wants to carry a key the length of your arm?) and started using brass and iron so they’d be sturdier. Donald Jackson has an excellent collection of these old Roman keys, if you want to check them out. Here’s one that’s very similar to the Egyptian key, but notice that it’s only a few inches long now.
In time, the Romans started developing keys and locks to be more complex, and they started to look much more like what we use today. And as locks became more popular, keys became a status symbol. They said “I have money and property that other people would want” so Romans, women especially, started wearing them as jewellery in the BCE version of a humble brag.
That’s when keys became ridiculously ornamental, and a little less functional. This lion style was especially popular, but my absolute favorite is these bizarre horse keys. It doesn’t even look like it should work, it’s just a smiling horse.
What I’m getting at is that keys have come along way from their simple origins to the ones you locked in your car, and it’s always cool to learn a bit about the quotidien items that we take for granted.