History of locks

The History of Locks – Over 4000 Years

It’s the era of smart locks and cutting-edge solutions for security, but have you ever stopped to wonder how locks and keys came to be?

There are many conflicting accounts about the history of locks. Some believe that the earliest prototypes of locks date back to 1000 – 1200 BC in Rome and Greece. Others believe that locks existed during the ancient Egyptian civilization, dating as far back as 2700 years ago, while some assert that the development and evolution of locks began over 4,000 years ago.

Regardless of what account you choose to believe, in this article, we’ll delve into an exhaustive account of the history of locks, the evolution of door locks, and who invented these locks and keys. Keep reading to learn more about the history of door locks!

The Evolution of Door Locks

Many accounts suggest that the oldest lock in the world was discovered in the ruins of the Khorsabad Palace, Nineveh (now known as Mosul in Iraq). Since discovering this 4000-year-old lock, archaeologists have unearthed many other ancient locks and keys in various sites worldwide. In this section, we’ll discuss the different types of locks discovered over the past four millennia. Read on!

The Egyptian Lock

The Egyptian lock is one of the first locks ever discovered, with samples dating as far back as 2000 BC. Ancient Egyptians used a simple pin-tumbler system, which is still used today in certain parts of the world, although now in a more sophisticated manner. This mechanism relied on wooden pins of varying lengths positioned within the lock to control the movement of the key.

To unlock the door, the user would need to insert a specially constructed wooden key (a large wooden bar) through a hand-sized opening in the door. The key had grooves and protrusions that corresponded with the pins in the lock. When inserted, the key would lift the pins, allowing the bolt to be slid back, unlocking the door. If the pins were misaligned, the bolt would jam and prevent the lock from turning.

ancient greek wooden door lock on a barn door

The Ancient Greek Lock

In the first millennium, Greek engineers and locksmiths introduced locks that used a distinctive sickle-shaped key, typically forged from iron. Like the Egyptian lock, the key would be passed through a hole in the door. When turned, the sickle key would engage the bolt and slide it back, unlocking the door. However, this option fell short in terms of security, as thieves could easily break in.

The Locks and Keys of Ancient Rome

The next step in the evolution of locks came from ancient Rome. From 900 – 870 BC, the Romans upgraded to all-metal locks and bronze keys. They also enhanced the Egyptian wooden-style locks by adding wards, obstructions, and projections within the lock. These modifications were strategically included in the lock design so that only a particular key could open it.

This type of lock was eventually known as the “Warded Lock” and became the industry standard for many years.

Roman locksmiths also improved the ancient Egyptian style by creating smaller keys for their locks. These keys were sometimes so small that they could be worn as a ring on the finger, and having these compact keys and locks symbolized affluence for wealthy Romans who had valuables to protect.

ancient lock

Creators of the Modern-Day Lock

As civilization made giant strides in innovation and technology, the evolution of door locks was not left out. Notable locksmiths who developed modern-day locks are briefly discussed as follows:

1. Robert Barron

Robert Barron is credited with creating the first modern locks in 1778. He patented the double-acting tumbler lock, which, as the name suggests, had two levers that needed to be raised to the appropriate height before the key could be turned.

2. Joseph Bramah

Joseph Bramah was an English locksmith who created the first known high-security design for locks. The original lock was equipped with 18 distinct wafers, providing an astonishing 470 million possible combinations. In fact, Bramah was so confident about his work that he offered a £200 reward for anyone who could pick his lock. The lock remained unpicked for 67 years until Alfred Charles Hobbs successfully picked the lock in 1851.

3. Jeremiah Chubb

very old version of the chubb door lock

Whenever the question “When were locks invented?” comes up, the work of Jeremiah Chubb in 1818 will always be mentioned. Chubb took Barron’s work further by incorporating a detector into the double-acting tumbler to notify the owner that someone had tampered with the lock while they were away.

Hence, whenever someone tried to use the wrong key, the lock would automatically jam and remain that way until a unique key (called the regulator) was used to reset it.

4. James Sargent

James Sargent’s innovative work on locks produced the first-ever key-changeable combination lock in 1857. This lock quickly became a favorite with the United States Treasury Department and other companies that made safes.

5. Harry Soref

Harry Soref is responsible for creating the modern padlock. Drawing from Roman ideas, he successfully created the Master Lock and successfully patented the idea in 1924.

lock noob

6. Linus Yale Sr.

Like Jeremiah Chubb, the history of locks cannot be exhaustively discussed without reference to the work of Linus Yale. He is credited for developing the pin-tumbler lock system in 1848.

In this design, the lock’s cylinder contained a set of pins with different lengths. The key would raise these pins, which had corresponding cuts or notches, aligning them perfectly along the shear line. The lock could then be twisted to retract or lengthen the bolt once the pins were lined up.

7. Linus Yale Jr.

Linus Yale Jr. continued his father’s legacy by improving the pin-tumbler lock design, specializing in bank locks in the 1860s.

His most popular work is the cylinder pin tumbler lock which won many awards at fairs in the United States and globally. This design enhanced security and made locks more user-friendly and efficient.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

When were locks invented?

The oldest known example of the lock is the Egyptian pin-tumbler lock. It has been in existence for over 4000 years.

Who invented the key?

There is no single inventor of the key. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all played roles in developing keys and locks as we know them.

Who invented the lock?

The development of locks cannot be attributed to a single person. It occurred over centuries with contributions from different ancient civilizations across the globe.


The notable contributions of these remarkable locksmiths and engineers have undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the evolution of locks and keys since they first existed 4,000 years ago. So, whether you’re securing your home with a state-of-the-art smart lock or simply turning a traditional key into a tried-and-true lock, you are carrying forward a legacy that spans thousands of years.

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