A brief history of the evolution of keys
Key management is not a new phenomenon. The first known use of keys dates to ancient Nineveh, in what is now Iraq, around 2000 BC. There is archaeological evidence of a pin tumbler lock based on a wooden post with metal pins, each a slightly different height to be able to trigger the lock’s action.
By Roman times the warded lock had been invented, a cylindrical lock and a key with grooves cut into a flat blade on its end. The grooves would correspond with splines inside the lock, making it impossible for anyone to pick the lock unless they had a copy of the original key.
By the time of Rome’s empire the gap between rich and poor meant that the locksmith’s services were in great demand. A wealthy man making his way through the streets on a litter might be identified by the bunch of keys he carried. The Romans also invented the padlock. Roman houses and shops were equipped with shutters that would be brought down and locked with padlocks at the end of the day to keep out thieves.
The Islamic locksmith Al-Jazari invented the keyless combination lock in the 11th Century, but his design never caught on: it seems that the reassuring authority of a key was not easily replaced.
During the Dark Ages the technology used to make complex locks was largely limited to monasteries, which used large locks to maintain the security of the building from raiders, and to stop curious monks from indulging in sinful activities in the local villages.
Crossed keys are still the symbol of the Vatican. Even to this day the ritual meeting of the consistory for the election of the next Pope is known as a Conclave – from the Latin Cum Clavis – “With a Key”. This term dates from the time when the members of the consistory would be physically locked into the Sistine Chapel until they had made their decision. The lock-in still occurs but the participants can leave through a side door for food and sleep.
English travellers across Europe in the 18th century were plagued by bandits, due to the lack of locks on hostelry doors; they brought padlocks, keys, portable bolts, and a hammer and nails to be able to secure their rooms at night.
In 19th Century America the fledgling banking system was routinely raided by bank robbers on horseback, who would steal the contents of a strongbox by pouring gunpowder into its lock and blowing it off. The solution was the Yale lock, devised a New York inventor called Linus Yale. This used a unique, flat key, which was almost impossible to copy, and the keyhole was too small to pour gunpowder into.
Mechanical key duplicators were introduced in the 20th Century, based on Yale’s design, and remain a common feature of the high street, even though modern magnetic and biometric swipe cards have largely replaced physical keys in the workplace. It seems that the reassuring jingle of keys will be around for some time.
This article was written on behalf of Traka, leaders in sophisticated Electronic Key Management systems. Visit their site for more information on access control and asset management.