Time Enough for Locks

Kathleen Rice Adams: Classic tales of the Old West...that never forget the power of love.

tumbler lock

Rendering of an ancient tumbler-style lock.

For as long as there have been haves and have-nots, the haves have sought ways to secure their valuables. History no longer remembers the inventor of the first lock, but invention of the first key is attributed to Theodore of Samos in the 6th century B.C., which leads to the suspicion locks have been around at least that long. In fact, crude locking mechanisms dating to about 2,000 B.C. have been found in Egyptian ruins.

The first devices resembling what we know today as door locks were discovered in the palace of Persian king Sargon II, who reigned from 722 to 705 B.C. They were large, clumsy devices made of wood. Nevertheless, they served as prototypes for contemporary security devices.

The first all-metal locks, probably made by English craftsmen, appeared between 870 and 900 A.D. in Rome. A row of bars of varying length, called tumblers, dropped into holes drilled through the horizontal bolt securing a door or gate. Only the person who possessed a metal bar fitted with pins corresponding to the tumblers could shove the bars upward through the holes, thus freeing the bolt.

Bodie Bank in Bodie, California, mid-1870s

Bodie [California] Bank’s vault, mid-1870s (photo by Dick Rowan, National Archives and Records Administration)

No great advancements in lock technology occurred until about the 14th century A.D., when locks small enough to carry appeared. Traveling tradesmen used the so-called “convenient locks” to secure their money and other valuables.

Although padlocks were known to the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, the first combination lock didn’t appear until the 18th century. Until 1857, most banks used combination locks of some kind to secure their vaults. The secret to combination locks was to create complex series of letters and numbers that would frustrate anyone who tried to disarm the mechanism. The code for the combination lock securing the safe in the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington D.C., for example, required a lengthy series of letters and numbers that provided 1,073,741,824 possible combinations. Because cracking the code by systematically running through all the possible combinations would require 2,042 years, 324 days, and 1 hour (barring a lucky guess), the lock was considered burglar-proof.

Nye & Ormsby County Bank, Manhattan, Nevada, 1906

Vault among the ruins of the 1906 Nye & Ormsby County Bank in Manhattan, Nevada. The bank crumbled (literally and figuratively), but the vault survived.

Soon enough, enterprising criminals figured out combination locks had an Achilles heel: Robbers could hold a bank employee at gunpoint and demand he or she dial in the correct code.

In 1873, James Sargent invented what he called a theft-proof lock. The device combined a combination lock with a timer that would not allow the safe to be opened until a certain number of hours had passed, even if one knew the combination.

By the late 1870s, theft-proof locks were de rigueur in banks all over the U.S. Though they weren’t quite unbreakable — dynamite trumps almost any security measure — theft-proof locks thwarted more thieves than any previous mechanism.

 

Save

Kathleen Rice Adams

A Texan to the bone, award-winning author Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s tales, even the good guys wear black hats.


Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun won the EPIC Award for Historical Romance and is the only western historical romance ever to final for a Peacemaker in a book-length category.


Visit her at the Hole in the Web Gang’s hideout, KathleenRiceAdams.com. Or, connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Her Amazon author page is here.


9 Comments

  1. Quite an intriguing post. I learned a lot.

  2. Good Morning, Kathleen. I love your blog. I guess people have always had a need to secure their belongings. These locks get pretty complicated. I was amazed at the U.S. Treasury vault lock but I can understand. No longer are the kind outlaws used to crack…or blow up. Ha! I loved these pictures of the bank vaults still standing after everything else is gone. They were very sturdy!

    Love and big hugs, Tex!

  3. Neat pictures of vaults still standing! It is good we have come a long way with our safes and locks.

  4. This is interesting. I never would have thought of the history of locks.

  5. Interesting post, Kathleen! And I loved the picture of Bodie’s Bank Vault still standing. I had no idea that locks had been around for such a long time.

  6. So interesting, Kathleen.
    I always just drop a big old bar across the door, but I remember Pa Ingalls had a padlock and chains for his horses.

  7. Bodie is the town that’s being allowed to crumble in Nevada isn’t it?
    I’ve done some research on Bodie but then I forgot all about it. Cool place.

  8. Kathleen- what a wonderful blog. Locks arecsomething that we use every day but I never thought of the history of them, thank you for this wonderful blog and history lesson. I will never look at locks the same again.

  9. Hi Sister Filly, how interesting. I really never gave the history of locks much mind, so this was very fulfilling to me. What great research! Thanks so much for writing a great blog. I bet the majority of the readers out there don’t realize they go back so far in history. Have a great day. Hugs, Phyliss

Comments are closed.

Petticoats & Pistols © 2015