Facts That Figure: Locks

Facts That Figure: Locks

By: C.G. Hoffman

You only need a lock if you’ve got nice things that someone else might want… The oldest known lock was found in the ancient city of Nineveh, the city Yonah Hanavi made famous. The ancient Egyptians perfected the mechanical lock, constructing a wooden lock with pins that opened with a giant wooden toothbrush like key. If the pins on the key matched the pins in the lock… Open Sesame!

The Romans were the first to develop metal locks and keys. For the first time, keys were now small enough to slip into one’s pocket, and one could protect his goods even on the go. Some wealthy Romans even took to wearing their keys as jewelry, so they could show off that they actually had enough valuables to protect. Roman locks also boasted a genius Roman invention: steel springs. They were brilliantly engineered, and some intact samples have been uncovered by archaeologists at Pompeii, the ancient Roman city that was buried by a volcanic eruption.

During Medieval times, locks lost the sophistication of Roman times, and were mostly just a beam slotted through a bolt. With the advent of the Crusades, locks became serious business as castles needed protecting as their knights were gallivanting about on their supposedly heroic missions. Lockmaking became a cat and mouse game between locksmiths and thieves. The more sophisticated the locks became, the more adroit the lockpickers became. One technique to slow down burglars, was simply installing as many locks as possible. Some Medieval treasuries and armories had up to a dozen locks on the door!

Apparently, as long as there are locked doors, there will be people trying to break in. In London in 1394, a statute was passed forbidding smiths from making keys from impressions, “by reason of the mischiefs which have happened.”

Everything changed in 1770, when Joseph Bramah invented what appeared to be an unpickable lock. The brilliant inventor made a lock with layers and layers of complexity, and was so confident that he offered 200 guineas (about $30,000 today) to anyone who could break it open. This was followed by the “Chubb lock,” a lock that alerted its owner that someone had attempted to pick the lock. This ushered in a 70 year period of what was termed “perfect security,” as property owners could sleep peacefully, knowing their valuables were protected. 

The era was broken in 1851, at the Great Exhibition in London. One of the attendees was A.C. Hobbs, an American locksmith. He publicly announced that he would pick the Chubb detector lock, and he did! It took him 25 minutes, but to everyone’s astonishment, he broke it open without setting off the alert.

The lock you have on your front door is very likely a Yale lock, and it’s been around since 1862. The invention of the pin tumbler lock revolutionized lockmaking, not only for its security, but also because it was the first lock to be mass produced.

The most secure, theft proof place in America is probably Fort Knox, where the nation’s gold reserves (or a portion of it) are kept. The codes for the doors for employees to get in are changed every single day.

For the youngsters among you, there was actually a time when every Jewish home was NOT equipped with a combination lock. There was an old fashioned lock (gasp!) which opened with an old fashioned key (gasp!) which had to be carried with you (gasp! gasp!)! What did people do on Shabbos? Well, some of us remember having Bubbies who wore fancy-shmancy Shabbos key pins: Those were keys that were decorated with gemstones and worn as jewelry!

You might be surprised to learn that it is rare for burglars to pick locks. Picking locks is a sophisticated method that requires time, patience, and ingenuity, something which today’s burglars don’t exactly have in abundance. Burglars seek a quick and easy entrance, most often accomplished with brute force rather than with finesse.

Today’s locks come with a huge array of “smart” options. There are locks that open with bluetooth, wi-fi, fingerprints, iris scans, keypad readers that open with a PIN, swipe card readers and Biometric readers, which use a combination of personal data such as facial, iris and fingerprint recognition.

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