Keys always attract interest, perhaps it is speculation of the random designs, or how it works the mysterious workings of the lock which when set into motion gives the owner complete peace of mind. Even today, there are people who would buy a lock based on the key design and not the quality of the actual locking device.
The story of keys started when the first locks appeared back in ancient Babylon and Egypt, 6 thousand years ago. By using wooden toothbrush-shaped keys, the Egyptians could lift the small pins in the lock and unlock the bolt. Sadly, this design had several disadvantages – both lock and key were made from wood (material susceptible to external brute-force attacks) and the key itself was very bulky and heavy. The oldest examples of these ancient locks were found in ruins of the Assyrian palace of Khorasabad, a biblical city of Nineveh. These locks were dated to 704 BC.
The next evolution of keys came from the Ancient Romans, whose engineers and inventors greatly improved the designs of Egyptian wooden locks by using metals such as iron and bronze to create much stronger and smaller locks and making keys that were light enough to be carried.
During the 15th and 16th Centuries, the invention and introduction of wards into the locks. Although around the world keys were gradually being developed, the design was generally worked to represent various forms of importance, one namely religion. Many keys were designed with the cross and stars, indicating that the power of the prevailing religion would contribute to the security. On the other hand, the perpetrator of any attack would be seen to be attacking the authority of the church and that religion. The shape of the key was not changing from large flat structures with pins on their end to the recognisable look of what we commonly but incorrectly term (the Chubb Key) today.
This design continued for receiving only minor updates in their looks. During this period, locksmiths were more focused on deceiving thieves or making their work more tedious than innovating new safeguarding mechanisms.
Through the centuries, both the locks and the keys that open them have undergone change after change. One such development came during WW1 and WW2 by the Germans in the form of the Bode Panzer key. The Nazis developed a lock which in its final form could not be viable for commercial manufacture but incorporated very sophisticated features. Every facet incorporated into the bit of the key acted upon a corresponding movable component within the lock case. The lock itself was even mounted inside an explosion proof casing. The key was cyanide hardened and a lot shorter than the thickness of the safe door giving a wrong impression to anyone without knowledge.
When the key was inserted into the casing breech, a device was pushed into the safe and when turned operated the locking mechanism within.
Some of you may know about the Great Lock Controversy of 1851 where by the faith of the best locks and lock manufacturers of the time such as Chubb and Bramah were publically defeated.
There followed many diverse inventions to try to prevent their locks being defeated and one method by Parnell was an extending key. The key until placed into the lock was too short, but when activated by a special mechanism inside the lock the key bit would extend and operate the lock, when withdrawn, it would revert to the shorter size again.
When the motor car appeared, an organisation started in 1905 called the Automobile Association or AA. The association fitted small cabinets normally in hotel foyers which would have a mirror, comb, brush and a map inside. Initially, the small decorative keys were only issued to AA staff but in 1926 the keys were issued to all AA members.
Even today, many people still have a treasured AA key dangling from their car key ring or in a draw somewhere.
Modern “flat keys” were first introduced to the public by Linus Yale, Sr and Jr. in mid 1800s. By using the tumbler lock a far more sophisticated way of regulating the pins, these flat keys become an instant success around the world. They were easy to manufacture, and thanks to invention of key cutting, easy to replicate in large numbers making them cheaper.
Today, majority of the locks in the world uses flat keys, but there are still and always will be a need for the old traditional mortice key somewhere and while we use keys and place our faith in them, every key on your key ring could tell its own, personal story and just goes to prove, keys always attract interest.