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Locks and Keys: History of securing stuff

Updated on January 22, 2014
Ottoman style handmade padlocks on exhibit in Turkey.
Ottoman style handmade padlocks on exhibit in Turkey. | Source

Stuff: Reason for locks and keys

"Fewer than half of those surveyed (by State Farm in 2008) always locked their front doors... Just as there are cat people and dog people, there seem to be 'Lock People' and 'No Lock People.' " – NY Times


We all have so much stuff, according to George Carlin in his great comedy bit: "Stuff."

Once we acquire stuff – our precious possessions – we put them behind lock and key to protect our items from theft and vandalism. Security is so ingrained in our culture that you’ll find the birth of locks and keys in antiquity.

The ancient Egyptians made the first locks out of wood. They were built into massive crossbars that slid across their doors and secured them in place. While these primitive wood barriers were ineffective, they made a statement. That message is no different than the one made by today’s digital locks: “Hands off my stuff!”

As Carlin noted in his monologue, people are constantly buying more things and looking for a safe place to put their stuff.

“Your house is a pile of stuff with a cover on it,” Carlin declares. “And when you leave your stuff you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff.

Whether it’s a huge flat screen TV or a fully equipped SUV, folks love to flaunt all the stuff they have. It’s always been so.

“Good Stuff” was one of the symbols that separated ancient rulers and nobility from the masses. The wealthy loved to show off their castles, robes, livestock and other property. They even displayed their keys, which were symbols of affluence. Keys meant you had valuable stuff that was locked away from commoners.

Another reason to lock the door

The first key (left) and lock made of wood.
The first key (left) and lock made of wood. | Source

The first locks and keys

Somewhere around 4000 BC, people first felt the need to secure their homes. They did so by tying a rope around their front doors using an intricate Gordian knot.

Soon, Egyptian engineers and scientists created the first locks and keys out of wood. Although they couldn’t stand up to fire or an axe the first locks used a method that was the forerunner of system employed by lock makers for centuries: “pin-tumblers.”

Those first locks were built into large wooden bolts or crossbars latched across noblemen’s doors. Each had a slot filled with wooden pegs that ► prevented the bolt from being opened without its corresponding wooden key. When that first key, which looked like a toothbrush, was inserted into the bolt and lifted it moved pins out of holes drilled inside the bolt and allowed the crossbar to be removed.

Wearing keys as rings

In the 8th century BC, the Romans perfected this design and made pin-tumbler locks out of metal. They also fashioned keys out of bronze, iron and precious metals. In addition to having a lock on their door, Roman nobles often had locked metal boxes in their homes. Artisans fashioned keys for these boxes into rings that the wealthy wore on their fingers.

Sometime after the 12th century, art entered the field and many of the keys were adorned with elaborate designs that matched the Gothic architecture, which feature pointed arches and ornate cathedral spires. Some keys were decorated with the aristocrat's coat of arms or other symbols. Church keys were emblazoned with lavish crosses and other religious designs.

Major lock and key design changes occurred in the 19th century

The first locksmiths

The locksmith profession was born during the Middle Ages. The task of crafting and forging locks was originally handled by blacksmiths.

Many blacksmiths created battle pieces and horseshoes for the king and knights. As victorious armies returned home with spoils of war, they asked blacksmiths to fashion locks to protect their stuff. Soon, some blacksmiths shifted to this new, growing vocation.

The big boom in lock design occurred during the industrial revolution, when new metallurgy processes and better tools resulted in major improvements.

A couple of locks that are still used today were invented and perfected in the 19th century: the double tumbler. and the cylinder lock. The latter was invented by American Linus Yale.

Yale also produced many innovative bank locks. Fellow American Amos Holbrook developed the first time lock to thwart bank robbers.

Padlocks are the workhorses of locks; they're found everywhere


A look inside some padlocks

Padlocks are small, easy to use, portable, reliable and provide great security. These locks are composed of a body, a "U" shaped loop of metal called a shackle and a locking mechanism.

These flexible locks that typically loop through a hasp have distinguished themselves in their several thousand year history.

Padlocks were developed by the ancient Romans and Chinese.

One of the first uses of padlocks were to secure trunks being transported on tall ships.

How many keys on your key chain?

See results

Superstitions related to keys:

  • Placing your keys on the (kitchen) table will result in bad luck.
  • If you drop your keys it means something bad is going to happen.
  • Losing your keys means you’ll hear of a death.
  • If you find a key you’ll have good luck.
  • If you dream of keys you’ll have an unexpected change.
  • A key worn on a string about your neck will prevent nose bleeds.
  • A pregnant woman who peeks through a keyhole will have a cross-eyed baby.

Our attachment to keys

Of course a lock is as important as a key, but we have a more personal attachment to keys, since we carry them with us all the time.

Take out your key chain and examine all your keys. You probably have a half a dozen or so, including a few that you can’t remember what they open.

Perhaps this personal connection explains why people in the Middle Ages believed keys – especially church keys – possessed great power. Church keys were supposed to cure whooping cough and calm rowdy children.

Metal keys on the way out

Locks and keys are in a period of major transition. People are beginning to use electronic and digital locks.

As this trend continues you can see a future when we won't need metal keys. This will be a sizable societal shift, since keys are one of the most commonly manufactured metal objects in the world.

Some new homes are equipped with electronic remote control locks. These are similar to the locks that have been in cars for the past two decades, which use a small radio transmitter built into the car’s keyfob. (The automobile industry recently took this technology one step further. Now you don’t have to put the key in an ignition lock. As long as the electronic keyfob is in the car you can start it by pushing a button on the dash.)

Will phones replace keys?

On the home front, more locks are going electronic. Some of these new door locks allow residents the choice of using a keyfob, a metal key or a keypad to unlock it. Other companies have developed digital house locks you access using an app on your smartphone. And still others have created a lock that opens your front door once it scans your fingerprints.

Will this technology mean the death of metal keys? The public's love of smartphones and wearables indicates this is more of a "When" than an "If" question. “The traditional key’s chances of survival” The New York Times predicts, “will be determined by whether its digital successors prove to be more efficient.”

© 2013 Thomas Dowling


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Great article . The ancient lock & keys are example of finest engineering & precious Art which should be preserved . In india we also love these artifacts . They are well preserved . for readers who are interested they can visite this place in india.I visited this place its awesome.

      //Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum//

      Address : 4.0 65 reviews Natu Baug,Shukrawar Peth,, 1377-78, Off. Bajirao Road, Pune, Maharashtra 411002 020 2448 2101

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      5 years ago from Florida

      midnightbliss and DzyMsLizzy :

      Thanks for the positive feedback and insight on our changing security. It's a strange time we live in. It seems like we have to deal with daily changes in technology -- we either adjust or get left behind.


    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Congratulations on HOTD!

      This was a very interesting article. I did not know the Egyptians were the first to come up with locks using pin tumblers.

      As my husband says, "Locks only keep out the basically honest by preventing 'crimes of opportunity.' Determined criminals will find a way around most any locking device."

      That said, I think locks are still more effective than not; and even criminals can be deterred by the idea that something will take too long to defeat.

      I worry more about electronic locks. It's all fun and games until the power goes out; the battery fails; or an EMF pulse hits. Thanks, but I'll keep my old-fashioned locks. ;-)

      Voted up, interesting, useful and pinned.

    • midnightbliss profile image

      Haydee Anderson 

      5 years ago from Hermosa Beach

      Interesting hub! And yes, I believe smart phones and similar technology is already replacing the traditional lock and key. In fact, I recall an episode of Shark Tank in which a guy invented door hardware that interacts with a person's cell phone. Without a doubt the 21st Century is going to be an amazing time for technological advancements!

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Randy Godwin, amandajoyshapiro and RTalloni:

      I appreciate your comments.

      It's a blessing being part of this community of talented and friendly writers. -TD

    • RTalloni profile image


      5 years ago from the short journey

      Well that was interesting. No wonder you have the Hub of the Day award. Congrats!

    • amandajoyshapiro profile image


      5 years ago

      This was a very excellent hub! I had to write a short paper on this back in high school but you took it to a more interesting level. Love in the pictures how the more ornate locks resemble art from a blacksmith.

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 

      5 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Cool hub, Thomas! I love the old Carlin skits too.

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      5 years ago from Florida

      theBAT, sehrm and Wizzywiz42:

      Thanks for the positive feedback. I did have fun writing this with a focus on Carlin's "Stuff" routine. I wrote it during the Christmas season and it was my subtle attempt to chide our consumerism dominated culture.


    • Wizzywiz42 profile image

      Josh Mathew 

      5 years ago from Murphy,Tx

      Wow! Interesting.

    • sehrm profile image


      5 years ago from Los Angeles

      Thanks for the share - love the angle as introduced with George Carlin. Thanks for this great write-up; you deserve the "article of the day" accolade!

    • theBAT profile image


      5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing. Maybe in the near future metal locks would be replaced by an app in smartphones. Interesting hub.

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Stuff4Kids, ChitrangadaSharan, wqaindia and ilikegames:

      I really appreciate your positive comments. I wrote this because I was interested in the subject, but I really didn't think it would interest others.

      Hub Community: Thanks for the HOTD selection!

    • ilikegames profile image

      Sarah Forester 

      5 years ago from Australia

      Such an interesting and unique Hub!

    • wqaindia profile image

      Ashok Goyal 

      5 years ago from 448 Dalima Vihar Rajpura 140401 Punjab India

      Security is everybody's concern and a hub topic on locks and keys coming is such an interesting write up is really wonderful work by the author. The day is not far away when locks with speech recognition technology may be available in the market and the owner has just to murmur Sim Sim Khul Ja :) Once again three cheers for TD.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      5 years ago from New Delhi, India

      A very interesting hub on a unique topic!

      Very informative and well done! Congratulations for a well deserved HOTD!

    • stuff4kids profile image

      Amanda Littlejohn 

      5 years ago

      Yay! Congrats. :D

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Thanks Stuff4Kids for your kind words. -TD

    • stuff4kids profile image

      Amanda Littlejohn 

      5 years ago

      Wow! This is a hub that I sure wish I had thought of writing - and you have done such a wonderful job of it!

      This is totally fascinating and I have learned so much that I had no idea of before - wonderful. A really great read and beautifully written and presented.

      I've voted this up and I'll suggest it to Christy Kirwan as a HOTD, too. Thank you so much for sharing this. :)

    • TDowling profile imageAUTHOR

      Thomas Dowling 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Thanks for the favorable words and for sharing that wonderful story, Ziyena.

    • ziyena profile image

      Ziyena Brazos 

      5 years ago from Somewhere in Time ...

      Wow! Love this hub ... when I was sixteen, my father gave me a padlock with a skeleton key still inside, chain and all. The padlock dates pre-civil war. If you look inside the key-hole, it's absolutely pristine! My father had it on layaway at an antique shop and the lady holding it for him told him that a curator from the state museum offered $500, but she told him that a man already bought it for his daughter's birthday. That was well over thirty years ago, and so I value it very much, knowing that a museum curator wanted it! Thank for the awesome info ... UP


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