Locks have been around for as long as people have amassed and aimed to protect worldly possessions — but in the thousands of years since they were first invented, their design has undergone countless innovations. With the next generation of locks arriving so quickly (did someone say smart locks?), let’s take a look back at the long and distinguished history of the lock.
The oldest known lock was discovered by archaeologists among the ruins of Khorsabad Palace in Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria. Dated to around 4,000 B.C., the lock was composed of a large wooden bolt and pegs to prevent a door from opening. When the proper key was inserted into the lock, it would lift the pegs up so that the bolt could be moved. This extremely convenient mechanism was a remote ancestor of the pin tumbler lock, which wouldn’t be invented for nearly 6,000 years.
Joseph Bramah patented his safety lock in 1784. Considered a brilliant inventor in his time, Bramah had been attending lectures on the mechanics of locks and decided to patent his own safety device. Sharing some similarities with the pin tumbler lock, the Bramah lock used fixed wafers instead of two-part pins. The locks were considered to be unpickable, and Bramah even held a contest offering a monetary award to anyone who could pick the lock. 67 years passed before American locksmith Alfred Charles Hobbs managed to pick it — and even then, the feat took him 16 days! The original lock can still be seen at the Science Museum in London.
The Yale Lock is more or less synonymous with the modern pin and tumbler cylinder lock. Linus Yale, Sr. made high-security, expensive bank locks in his shop in New York in the 1800s — but it was his son, Linus Yale, Jr., who perfected and patented his father’s pin and tumbler design. The mechanism uses pins of varying lengths to prevent the lock from being opened without the corresponding flat key with grooves and notches — the same design used on most front doors today.
While the pin and tumbler lock has many practical applications, it wasn’t used on luggage until 1890, when Louis Vuitton designed the first of his classic trunks outfitted with the then new-fangled apparatus. Already a successful designer, Vuitton’s innovation offered a new level of security to the throngs of travelers interested in his vertical wardrobe trunk and stylish canvas bags. Each piece of luggage could be opened with just one key, allowing the savvy traveler to keep their belongings safely within reach.
The first key card was invented by Tor Sornes in 1975, when he created a holecard-based, recordable key card lock that’s still used in hotels all over the world. This enabled each guest to have a key created from a unique combination of 32 holes, for a whopping 4.2 billion possible combinations! Sornes then went on to design and patent the electronic key card with the magnetic strip that many hotels use today.