Keys are immensely familiar everyday objects. This familiarity means that many people fail to pay attention to the ingenious bits of metal jangling around in their pockets. The key is, however, a fascinating device. Join us as we unlock the short history of the humble key.
1. Ancient History
Keys – and their associated locks – have surprisingly ancient origins. The oldest key to having been uncovered by archeologists was found in the ruins of Nineveh. This was the capital of the Assyrian civilization, one of humanity’s first truly organized mass societies. The key was estimated to have been around 6,000 years old. The specific mechanism that the key unlocked is not fully known, but some evidence of how it might work can be seen in the Egyptian pin locks used several hundred years later. Ancient Egyptian keys and locks worked the same way as some modern examples. A set of pins were inserted into drilled holes. If all of the pins were raised, the lock could be opened. Keys were developed that contained a specific set of teeth that could lift all pins.
Ancient Romans often displayed their keys as jewelry. Displaying a key meant that the owner had property worth protecting, and identified them as a wealthy person.
2. Medieval Europe
The trade of the locksmith flourished in medieval Europe. The first all-metal lock and key systems were developed in England in the middle of the 9th century. Walk into a medieval parish church or cathedral in western Europe and you are likely to find a heavy wooden box. These boxes were where churches kept local treasures and records. Almost all of them would, at one point, have been unlocked using heavy and ornate metal keys. By the 10th century, keys were relatively standard. They almost all had thin stems and L-shaped bits that turned to unlock a pin system.
3. The Industrial Revolution
The industrial revolution completely upended the technological world. Key and lock design came on leaps and bounds during this time. After a burglary in Portsmouth Dockyard in 1818, the British government held a competition to design a key and lock that could withstand picking and only be opened by a unique key.
Jeremiah Chubb won the competition with his Chubb Detector Lock, which frustrated attempts at picking and notified property owners if their locks had been tampered with. This design is still in use today. Chubb was awarded his prize money after a trained lock picker failed to crack his design after 3 months of testing. Chubb keys had distinctive long spines covered in multiple teeth, which differed from earlier L-shaped designs.
4. Modern Keys
Most conventional keys are now essentially upgrades of Chubb’s design, but the world is changing – and the key is changing with it. The most modern keys are not physical objects that can be swapped and cut. They are the unique features of the human body. Biometric authentication systems unlock doors by identifying unique features of an authorized person’s anatomy, like fingerprints or retina shape.