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The beginnings of locks

13th December 2015

The Ancient Egyptians, hey? What did they ever do for us? Well actually they did a Pharoah amount when you really Sphinx about it, and I’m not just talking about the terrible puns they enabled to occur in this sentence which I’m sure you’re already (King) Tutting about. Sorry, I’ve finished now, Mummy’s the word. 

The introduction of the lock

But anyway, they did A LOT. As well as the Pyramids, hieroglyphics, Mathematics, and even toothpaste; one of the Ancient Egyptians’ most exciting inventions from my point of view was the humble lock. Yes, next time you turn your key in your front door, secure your bike outside the shops, or lock your car in the multi-storey, spare a thought for  the ancient Egyptian inventors who, it is believed, came up with the very first example of a lock, created around 4,000BC. 

By today’s standards of course, locks were very crude back in the time of old Tutankhamen. The earliest device was a fore runner of the pin-tumbler lock that is still very much in use today . Basically this consisted of a hollowed-out bolt in the door which was connected to dropping pins that, due to gravity, kept the door secure when left to their own devices. However, the insertion of a key enabled the pins to be pushed upwards, causing them to slip away from the bolt shaft, allowing it to be withdrawn. The whole mechanism was made of wood – metal locks wouldn’t arrive until the Greeks came along.

The introduction of the key

One quite considerable problem with the Egyptian lock was the concept of the “key”. The word today brings to mind a small metal device, handy enough to fit several of on a keyring and keep in your pocket, However, in Egyptian times, the wooden keys were several feet long, shaped like some sort of giant toothbrush, so not the handiest to carry about with you. Presumably these keys resulted in many variations on the old joke – “Is that a 60 centimetre key in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?” Replying that you just had a couple of feet of wood in your undercrackers would presumably only make the situation worse. 

Despite the key size, Egyptian locks had the advantage over the Roman locks that came later which included a spring rather than a bolt to hold the door in place. The earlier Egyptian locks were actually far more difficult to pick, although having  the mechanism on the outside of the door did rather expose them to anyone who wanted to try. The Roman and Greek locks, although easier to pick, did hold the trump card of being inside rather than outside the door so it could be argued that although the mechanism was less secure, there were far less actual attempts over in Rome and Athens than back in Ancient Alexandria. 

So there you have it. Next time someone asks you from where the first locks originated, now you have an answer. And if no-one ever asks you, well more fool them - some people have no curiosity. Perhaps introduce the subject over the turkey dinner this Christmas, or at the office party. You'll gain quite the reputation... as something or other. 

Merry Christmas to all my customers and readers.

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