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History of locks, part 5

9th April 2016

Well here we are. In his poem, The Waste Land, T.S Eliot wrote that April was the cruellest month. That was clearly before he realised that in 2016, April would see the fifth and final of my blog miniseries on the history of locks. If someone had also told him that the previous four were still all available on this site, so that after today he could binge-read all five in a row to his heart's content, well, I think he'd have changed his tune and declared another month the cruellest. Perhaps January - that's never the best, and we were only two fifths of the way through our lock history back then. 

Anyway, that unnecessary preamble leads on to the final of this particular set on blogs. We have previously looked at Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Roman locks, the locks of Robert Barron and Jermiah Chubb; and last month we looked at the contribution made by Yorkshire-born Joseph Bramah. This month however, we'll cross the Atlantic and look at possibly *the* most famous name in modern lock history, and a name synonymous with locks today - Yale. 

The story of Yale is the story of two Linuses - Linus Yale Sr and Linus Yale Jr. Father and son, these two didn't let their shortage of Christian names hold them back, and went on to help create a lock dynasty. Working in the state of New York in the US in the 19th Century, Yale Sr opened a lock shop in the 1840s, mainly focussed on bank locks. His son then joined the business and was mainly responsible for the revolutionary lock designs that followed. The younger Yale  went on to form the Yale Lock Manufacturing Company in 1868 with a business partner, Henry Towne, and the next 150 years, as they say, is history. Although the company was bought by Swedish lock manufacturer, Assa Abloy, in 2000, the Yale subsidiary company still retains its own name. 

Creating ultra-secure locks

So why did Yale become such a big name? The answer lies simply in his innovations. Following in his father's footsteps (and in some instances, refining his father's designs) Yale Jr created one of the first modern locks to use a pin tumbler design. Yale had always been suspicious of the holes in traditional locks, as thieves could use picks, heat, or even explosives to break the locks - compare the size of the openings of  an old style lock with a Yale lock, and you'll see exactly why he had these concerns. 

 Although the concept of the pin tumbler design dated all the way back to Egyptian times (if only there was  a previous blog where I talked about those!),  using several small pins to block the movement of the bolt, Yale's major update was that his device was much smaller, and that the small steel key was completely flat and cut with several grooves. These grooves would line up with internal pins, raising each pin to the correct height so that the key could be turned. The serrated edges of the key we designed with such precision that even  a barely noticeable different in pin length would be enough to prevent the key turning, leading to the possibility of thousands of different combinations of key and lock, further increasing security. 

Updating and innovating

Yale's updating of this cylinder pin tumbler lock was so successful, it carried away multiple awards within the industry. For the first time, a large-scale use of a very secure locking device was made possible, and at an affordable price to the general public. The design could be used in many different forms and put to a myriad of uses, allowing for more complex keying systems.  

More lock developments followed Yale, of course, but almost all locks used today on domestic properties are just a refinement of the original Yale pin-tumbler design. It goes to show that a good design will stand the test of time and, who knows, maybe it'll still be around in another 200 years. We should all raise a glass to Yale for his achievements in making all of our houses just that bit more secure. 

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