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History of locks, part 2

10th January 2016

Happy New Year everyone. Now the festive period is safely out of the way, the tree's in the attic for another year, the bin collections are back to normal, and that last mince pie is going stale in the cupboard, it's time for a real treat. Yup, it's the second in our series looking at the history of locks. You'll remember of course that we started this in December with the first part, and I thought I'd respect tradition in following up with part two - after all, best not confusing things this early in the year.

I could now do a brief catch up of the story so far, as the BBC no doubt do with their adaptation of War and Peace. However, you'll be pleased to know the story of locks won't last *quite* as long as Tolstoy's epic, and there's certainly less Russian names to get your head around. Plus, of course, I'm assuming that you've thought of little else over the last month anyway, other than the information I gave last month about Ancient Egyptian locks. It probably even distracted you from the Christmas edition of Downton Abbey, but there's no need to thank me, really.

A step back in time

Anyway, we had been given the rudimentary lock by the Ancient Egyptians and it had served their needs pretty successfully. But the Romans weren't going to be satisfied with them - after all, they'd revolutionised the sewage system, introduced the modern calendar, and invented roads - so they'd undoubtedly want to put their own stamp on things, and this was certainly the case here.

Primarily, the Romans massively reduced the size of keys. This might not sound much, but given that the Egyptian keys were wooden and could measure 2 or 3 feet in length, you can see how the reduction in size made things a great deal more convenient. The Romans produced keys much closer to the size of modern keys. The second big change to the keys was that whereas the Egyptians made theirs out of wood, the Romans turned to bronze, making them far more durable. 

The Romans were famously  big  fans of bronze, so much so, that you'd imagine they'd almost rather finish third in the Olympics than first or second. They had come up with new ways of melting and moulding the material, and in this way, they produced keys. The process was pretty simple - a model of the key would be created out of wax and then covered in clay, which after firing, would harden and the wax would melt and run out. This would leave you with a hollow mould in which molten bronze was poured and left to cool and harden. Then it would be a simple matter of smashing the outer layer of clay to magically reveal a brand new bronze key. 

As touched on earlier, the finished keys were much smaller than any previously made by the Egyptians, and the Romans often wore them on a little ring around their finger. I would say the keys could fit into pockets, but that doesn't seem to be one of the Roman's inventions - as far as we know a toga was completely without pockets. 

In the same way the keys were produced, locks could also now be made out of metal instead of wood, another advance on the Egyptians, as metal locks resulted in more security -  less easy to smash with an axe for one. Further security came through the Romans including a ward on the key face. This "ward" matched up with a ridge within the lock mechanism and ensured that only a key with a ward that matched the specific ridge was able to enter and trip the lock. 

Another  Roman advance came through the fact that the locks did not require the key to turn a full revolution to unlock the mechanism. This meant that there was less reliance on gravity and we can surmise from this that the Romans introduced spring-loaded bolts within their locks. Remains of Roman locks found preserved in the volcanic lava of Vesuvius seems to back up this theory. 

Improving lock designs

These improvements and innovations from first the Egyptians and then the Romans were the highpoint of lock progression for the next 17 centuries. Yes, the basic design of locks and keys remained the same right up until the 18th Century. You could say that this proved the Romans did something really right, or wonder what everyone was doing for the next 17 centuries - personally I'd give them the benefit of the doubt and pick the former option.

We will bring the second part of the story to an end here. As I said, there's not much to report for the 1700 years between the Ancient Romans and the next big developments. But what developments they will be, encompassing as they do, the likes of Barron, Chubb, Bramagh and Yale - some or all of which should be familiar names to anyone with a passing interest in locksmithery. I believe that's what they call a cliff-hanger anyway, so I'll see you next month to continue the story, and there will be no "Bobby Ewing waking up in a shower" style cop out here. Well, probably not, anyway. 

For more contemporary lock advice, upgrades, replacements or ideas call Stephen at SF Locksmiths on 01709 711055 or 07990573857.

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