The History of Keys
What's in a Key?
To start, let's talk about the makeup of modern keys. The most common types of keys are typically made of two parts: the bow and the blade.
The bow is the round, oblong, or square part of the key that you grip between your thumb and finger when you insert the key into a lock. It is also the part of the key that has a hole for the key ring.
The blade slides into the keyway of the lock, where it moves some pins within the lock. A series of teeth and notches on the blade move the pins up and down so that they line up with a shear line in the lock. The shear line allows the inner cylinder which contains the pins to rotate against the outer cylinder of the lock. This opens the lock.
The earliest known key (and its corresponding lock) was found in the ruins of Nineveh, the ancient capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. This simple key was simply a wooden prodder that could be inserted through a small hole in a door. It worked by lifting a bar of wood placed across the inside of the door. However, this type of key proved to be ineffective, since any small piece of wood could prod the wooden bar out of place.
Later keys developed more sophisticated parts that were more secure. The lock gained wooden pegs that fell by their own weight into a bolt. To unlock the bolt, the key had to be inserted into the bolt and lifted up to move the pins out of the way of the locking mechanism. These keys had teeth that resembled toothbrush bristles. This invention led to modern day pin-and-tumbler locks. However, these keys were often large, heavy, and easy to break, because they were made of wood.
Later, Romans further developed the Egyptian lock. They used metal rather than wood, favoring iron and bronze, which were some of the strongest metals available. They used locks to protect belongings in boxes. The lock also improved because it contained "wards," which acted as obstructions that prevented the turning key from moving a lever that unlocked the bolt. They prevented any key but the correct one from being inserted in the lock.
These locks were no longer so large they couldn't be carried. In fact, some affluent Romans wore their keys as rings on their fingers. These rings signaled their wealth and prestige among their peers, because they could afford not only a lock, but also jewelry and other precious things that were valuable enough to be concealed in a locked box. Keys and locks were often highly decorated and could be quite valuable themselves.
With the advent of warded locks, skeleton keys were invented. Skeleton keys tended to be as uncomplicated as possible, with as much material stripped away so that there would be no obstruction to the wards. Unlike modern keys, which move pins up and down, skeleton keys simply bypass wards that tend to be parallel with the blade of the key. The cylindrical blade of the key held it in place as the user rotated the bow to open the lock.
Skeleton keys were invented in the Middle Ages in Europe and were the most popular key and lock form right up until the 1940s. They tended to be large and heavy, since the key would have to be strong enough to move the lever and unlock the bolt.
This technology also allowed for master keys, or passkeys, which could open more than one lock of a similar design. This master key would have fewer notches in the blade, allowing it to bypass different wards present in different locks. These keys were typically used in hotels, family homes, and businesses.
The First Modern Key
However, locks that contained wards were relatively easy to break into, since a simpler key tended to work for more than one lock. In 1778, Robert Barron invented the lever tumbler lock. This lock uses a series of levers that prevent the bolt from moving in the lock. The design required the levers in the bolt to be lifted a certain height to reach a slot cut in the cylinder, but not so high that it obstructed the cylinder from rotating. This is the most popular design of lock still used today.
Keys were made to fit this kind of lock, with notches and teeth that corresponded to the pins in the cylinder. These lock and key combinations were more secure than their ancient predecessors, improving security and making modern life possible.
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