This page has various links related to locks and keys, in roughly chronological order. Not that we care quite so much about the keys. 😉
Links to resources on ancient locks
Locks from Egypt and neo-Assyria (3500 years ago) – the first known locks
These simple locks had only one pin per hole, and worked with gravity to make them drop securely back into a secure position. The large wooden keys simply lifted these up so the bolt could slide past cleanly. Too long a pin on the key would block the bolt too, but any key with thin long pins in the right design to fit would allow trivial picking of the lock, by overlifting the fatter pins, partly retracting the bolt, & then partly removing the key. This would allow the bolt to slide back, defeated.
Schyuler Towne on the origins of locks, amongst other ideas. “Why do we lock our door?’ from RVASec 2012
A very good talk!
Roman era locks – including combination locks!
Random ancient locks can be found by looking at the British Museum website, though often without much context.
British Museum search page
More old (and despite the name, much more modern) padlocks can be found at http://www.antique-padlocks.com
Another good resource is http://www.antique-locks.com/ which is a forum with some very knowledgeable people from around the world.
In the middle ages most locks were warded locks, which ranged from the simple to the incredibly complex. These all worked on the same principle and had the same shortcoming, which was that the lock had only 1 moving part (later a single lever and spring were added) and a single simple Skelton key would open all of the locks of a range. Ornate warded locks by craftsmen were of course still secure, but cost more than a year’s wages, & just like today, if made by someone without a good understanding of how locks worked, were still likely vulnerable to a bit of wire!
These locks are of current manufacture and can be bought today, & we start at the beginning:
Joseph Bramah was the inventor of the first modern lock.
Opening a Bramah lock (with the key though) – despite being patented in 1784 – some 230 years ago! – they are still made by the same company and are still hard to defeat!
Linus Yale senior & Linus Yale junior came up with various locks, but are best known for the modern pin tumbler lock on most homes in the world, patented in 1868 by LY jr. These range today from trivial to quite hard to defeat. The design has been tweaked a thousand times and more, and includes tubular locks where all the pins are visible on the face of the lock, & dimple locks where the cuts are on the side of the key.
The rotating disc lock is the newest and generally most secure design. Invented in 1907 and starting production in 1918 as Abloy Oy, this design has a set of discs that are turned to the correct angle by the key to allow opening. Genuine Abloy are hard to near impossible to pick, but there are many inferior copies that are easily defeated.
For a brilliant round up of different lock types and how they work, see this TOOOL.US powerpoint presentation with animations galore of how locks work. Be warned it is a big file and you will likely spend at least a few hours learning interesting stuff!