Evolution from the Basic Lock to Total Connectivity: Simple to Smart Technology

Oct. 2, 2018
New technologies like Bluetooth are profoundly changing the relatively simple lock and key, first invented 6,000 years ago

The evolution of simple locking mechanisms has had on and off again growth for the past 6,000 years when the first locks and keys were made. Today, it is a security solution that individuals use on a daily basis and, often, take for granted. It’s certainly second nature to insert a standard key into the front door lock when leaving home or type in a code to open the garage door.

Over the centuries, a dramatic shift in how these mechanisms are used has escalated from manual to electronic, from stand-alone to being connected to the internet of things (IoT). From Ancient Egypt to the 21st century, locking mechanisms have transformed to smart devices that give users the ability to turn on a favorite television channel when they unlock the front door. What used to be a simple lock and key – which is still profoundly used today – has evolved into an interconnected environment in both home and business.

Historical Shifts in Lock and Key Design

Around the 1850s, archeologists discovered wooden pin locks that dated back to 4000 B.C. These early locking mechanisms are surprisingly similar to locks used today, deploying pins of various lengths that could not be opened without the correct key, most commonly in cylindrical locksets. Although most of these locking systems were made of wood, it was determined that Egyptians often used brass for the pins. Throughout the Middle Ages (years 400 – 1499), the wooden pin lock design remained basically the same, until sometime during that period, the first all-metal warded locks were conceived. The key for this lock was designed with specific notches or slots that corresponded with the obstructions – or wards – in the lock. When the correct key was inserted, it rotated freely inside the lock. These were most commonly used in monasteries and in the U.K. and Ireland on ancient monuments and churches to preserve original features. However, regardless of the finite detailing that was created for this locking mechanism, it could also be opened with a skeleton key. Also known as a master key, it is void of all notches, allowing it to turn without hitting any obstructions.

Yale, Sargent and Schlage: Furthering Lock Evolution

In 1840, Linus Yale Sr. patented his pin and tumbler lock, commonly known as the Yale lock, which was an improvement over the rudimentary wooden pin locks created by the Egyptians. In 1861, with further improvements, the lock evolved into what many have on their front door today; with both lateral grooves and notches, once the key pins fall into each correct notch, the plus can rotate and retract the bolt.

In 1857, James Sargent invented the world’s first key-changeable combination lock that allowed the number sequence, or combination, to be easily reset with a specific key. Almost 20 years later, Sargent created the world’s first time lock, which would only open at a set time, and shortly thereafter furthered this idea with time-delay locks, which would remain closed for a predetermined amount of time after the combination was dialed.

Fifty years later in 1925, Walter Schlage invented the push-button cylindrical lockset that allows users to safely close a door from the inside. Although all these locks and keys allowed users to protect their possessions, just as those thousands of years ago, the new technology shift provided users with more information; for example, having the ability to know who accessed specific locks and when.

Many of the standard locking systems developed by Yale, Sargent – who also founded Sargent and Greenleaf (S&G) – and Schlage are still used in millions of homes, corporate buildings, government facilities and more. With smart devices being a norm today, these same companies have evolved with the times and are developing their own interconnected products.

The Rise of Bluetooth

New technologies have changed how we formerly used the relatively simple lock and key. In 1994, Jaap Haartsen first invented Bluetooth® as a wireless alternative to using cables for data transmissions. Over the past 20 years, Bluetooth has expanded from wireless audio to connected devices and wearable technology. This type of wireless connection has become an integral part of the new consumer electronics culture.

As a trusted brand with over 90 percent global awareness, many companies over the world are developing ways to use Bluetooth as a secure and convenient method. Lately, Bluetooth is serving as a catalyst for IoT, which enables devices to securely connect and exchange data. With almost all smartphones being Bluetooth compatible, the need to be able to connect remotely to these devices is prevalent. According to an estimate by Gartner, a leading research and advisory company, there will be about 20 billion devices by 2020. Not only are there home automation features that can trigger lights to turn on or shades to open once the door is unlocked, but Bluetooth can remotely open these front doors.

With personal safes, for example, S&G’s newly launched AxisBlu, a small medallion is placed on the outside of the safe that connects via Bluetooth, so instead of keying in a combination at the safe, users can access it anywhere within 30 feet of the safe from the user’s mobile device via an application. There is no need to have a combination written down or key laying around that might get into the wrong hands. Some of these applications allow five users, or 10 users, to connect to one lock. In the case with AxisBlu, the medallion is free of a keypad, allowing a completely secure wireless connection.

Like all wireless devices, Bluetooth can be susceptible to spying and remote access if the network isn’t secure. Service- and device-level security work together to protect Bluetooth devices from unauthorized data transmission. These levels of security have been enhanced in the later versions of Bluetooth. In order to keep the data private, manufacturers must utilize specific standards in the Bluetooth specification. Also, when the connection is made via an app and the device, the connection is then authenticated, authorized and encrypted within milliseconds to open the lock.

Smart devices will continue to improve, along with security. What started as simple wooden key pins has morphed into completely connected locks that bring more convenience to its users. Although there are still misconceptions on Bluetooth security, encryption capabilities have increased immensely since the first Bluetooth specification was released. With multiple modes and levels of Bluetooth, users can use this method of access confidently. Bluetooth will continue to be a driving force in today’s technology age.

Travis Ferry is Senior Electrical Engineer, Sargent and Greenleaf, www.sargentandgreenleaf.com