A History of Locksmithing 1939-2004

Nov. 15, 2004
A History of Locksmithing 1939-2004

Locksmithing during this era was considered more of a craft than a profession. It was often somewhat of a sideline as there were few locksmith-only shops. More often than not, locksmithing was offered in addition to bicycle or gun repair, or saw sharpening.

During this period, individual locksmiths usually developed their own tools and servicing methods. The craft was often handed down from father to son, keeping secret techniques in the family and away from the general public.

Locksmith distributors were few and far between. Most locksmiths had to purchase their locks and supplies from hardware stores, contract hardware and occasionally from the lock or key blank manufacturer.

Skeleton (bit) keys and flat steel mailbox keys were duplicated by hand with a file, a hack saw, Keil Turret key machine or Ilco Simplex key machine. The key machines would duplicate cylindrical keys and bit/skeleton keys. The Keil Turret machine could be used to mill the gates in the blade of a skeleton key.

During this time, there was little difference between commercial and residential locks. Rim knob sets were mounted onto the inside surface of the door. These locks required long, long keys. Some lock manufacturers made folding keys to get through the front of the door and into the lock. This made carrying the key in a pant pocket possible.

As doors became thicker, mortised locks took over. Mortise locks were available in bit, skeleton, and pin tumbler configurations. Pin tumbler (cylinder) mortise locks which had been available since the late 1800s, were used on front doors. Other bit key locks ranged from three to seven levers used on the back and interior doors. For privacy, skeleton key locks were also used on bathrooms, etc.

During the late 1930s, McKinney (today owned by SARGENT Lock Company) introduced a tubular lock with an adjustable backset. Also in the 1930s, Corbin introduced the first field-reversible without disassembly mortise lock.

From 1941-1945, lock manufacturers concentrated on the war effort with little time for new inventions. Locksmith techniques that worked in the 1930s did not have to be changed much for the 1940s. This is because car manufacturers stopped making new cars during the war years.

However, Curtis introduced their Post Type code cutter for originating automotive keys. It utilized a 'Post' for controlling depth of cut and special carriages which controlled the spacing Several posts and carriages were available, covering many of the automobile manufacturers.

In 1946, George Houlsey, Jr., received patents for a floor closer.

In 1948, Harry C. Miller invented a combination padlock to be used on locking bar cabinets. The following year, he invented and patented several manipulation-proof combination lock designs for safes and file cabinets.

A post-War housing boom spurred lock makers to develop new hardware which could be quickly and easily installed. Cylindrical designs first introduced by Schlage Lock in the 1920s became the lock of choice and changed locksmithing forever. Bit locks and rim locks lost favor as the public demanded a more modern appearance for their homes.

Many lock manufacturers produced their tubular/cylindrical locks with different sized cross bore, edge bore, and backsets. Backsets included 3-3/4", 5", 7" and 10", enough to bring the lock towards the middle of the door. This introduced the decorative escutcheon. At the same time, Russwin introduced the Ten Strike, a soon-to-be universal mortise lock that brought about standardization of the size of the mortise lock face. In addition, the internal parts were interchangeable, and could be converted to different functions.

In the early 1950s, Sargent introduced The Align-A-Lock, a 2-1/2" backset that would retrofit into either a 2-3/8" or 2-3/4" backset door preparation with a 2-1/8" cross bore.

In 1955, Lockmasters, a locksmith school for safe work, was created by Harry Miller and James Taylor.

Keyboards in lock shops also had to be expanded as a flood of new companies jumped into the cylindrical lock field. Parts and availability became a problem. Many lock companies changed designs several times because of poor quality or in order to be more price-competitive. Each company had its own ideas on sizes and shapes. Lock replacement became a big issue and locksmiths were routinely called on to re-mortise doors for new locks.

Automotive locking systems did not change much from the 1930s, but Curtis, Hurd and B&S did do much more to support our industry. Locksmiths depended on the Curtis hand code cutter to originate just about every kind of vehicle key. Foreign vehicles had not yet hit the North American highways, and a locksmith had to be prepared for the big three: GM, Ford and Chrysler. Add a few extra clipper parts for companies such as Packard, Hudson or Studebaker and every auto key fitting job was made simple. A locksmith could carry about a dozen different auto blank numbers with him, and be prepared for just about every make and model.

Locksmithing came of age during the 1960s. Locksmiths with foresight formed the Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA) in 1955 in order to share ideas and techniques. ALOA gained stature during the 1960s as locksmiths found it advantageous to work together. In addition, there seemed to be the growth in the number of and the membership of state locksmith organizations during the 1960s.

In 1962, Falcon Lock Company was formed by the Weiser Lock Co., to produce and distribute commercial grade locks.

In 1962, Thomas Hennessy of the American Hardware Corporation developed the "Key Code System" for Corbin and Russwin. This system (AA1, AA2, …) was universally adopted by the hardware industry.

Security became an important issue. The public wanted more than cylindrical locksets with dead latches. Auxiliary cylindrical deadbolts hit the market and every door with a latch lock became a candidate for added cylindrical deadbolt protection.

SARGENT began marketing the Keso lock cylinder in 1965, a multiple shearline Swiss product.

Foreign autos and motorcycles started trickling into North America. Progressive locksmiths became foreign car lock specialists. Taylor Lock and Dominion Lock supported locksmiths with key catalogs containing extra information which linked key blanks to code series.

For the 1965/66 model years, Ford changed to the double-sided, convenience key using an entirely new and heavier lock mechanism. The old systems used sets of 1000 codes each. The new double-sided codes were FA/FB 0001-1863. These codes were the same; however, the key blades were reverse of each other for the primary and secondary.

For the 1967 model year, General Motors introduced the fifth depth and new code series, ending the 30-year use of the 8000-9499 code series. This change affected code machines and try-out keys. The old system required only 60 try-out keys. The fifth cut and different keyways required 225 try-out keys.

In 1968, Medeco applied for their first patent.

In 1969, General Motors re-introduced the steering column-mounted ignition lock. This changed automotive locksmithing forever. No longer would just a few General Motors ignition locks be used for all models.

Technology for locksmiths really hit its stride in the 1970s. Zipf and LAB introduced pin kits in graduated lengths. Gone were the days of filing pins to length. A file never had to touch the lock plug again.

Horizontal linkage was introduced into cars, leading to a significant increase in the number of car-opening tools, and alternative opening methods.

People such as Frank Agius, Bill Reed and Wiggy Jensen got together and revolutionized key origination by compiling depth and spaces for every popular lock manufacturer. Jensen, Framon and LaGard went on to introduce key code cutting machines which could quickly and accurately originate keys. The old craft of locksmithing quickly changed into a science.

In 1971, Medeco showed their high security lock mechanism.

Sales of cylindrical deadbolts increased because they were easier and faster to install, and there was no need to mortise an oval opening.

Locksmiths began talking to each other about trade secrets.

Bit and barrel keys were still cut by most locksmith shops.

Locksmiths performed a lot more repair work then replacement. This included disassembly of laminated padlocks to originate keys.

A locksmith could make a good living rebuilding mortise locks.

The United States Post Office passed new regulations for larger-sized gangs of mail boxes to accommodate larger mail. These new regulations also required a more secure pin tumbler lock. The Master Lock pin tumbler locker locks replaced the flat steel key lock locks. This resulted in the flat steel key machine be moved to the back of the bench to be used mainly for safe deposit box keys.

On the West Coast, a major transition occurred with the change from the Schlage wafer lock mechanism to the pin tumbler lock mechanism in the key-in-knob locks.

In the 1970s and before, the restricted keyways were truly restricted.

Security for vehicle locks was also changing. The first modern-day locking steering wheel lock appeared on 1969 GM vehicles. Every domestic car model was equipped with steering wheel ignition locks by the early 70s. To further increase security, key code numbers were gradually removed from auto locks. Every step to increase security made it harder for locksmiths to originate keys but it also made each job that much more profitable.

Opening the Porsche 928 prior to the introduction of the Tech-Train tool TT-1011 required removing the windshield glass.

The SARGENT 60 Series and the Von Duprin 33 Series versions of the center case chassis exit devices were introduced in the late 1970s.

Locksmith associations became more prevalent.

As urban population increases, there is a natural tendency to want more security. The 1980s can be considered the era when mechanical high security locks became commonplace. They could also be known as the infancy of electronics for locksmiths. Some locksmiths became involved in installing automotive alarms. Schlage introduced a residential wireless alarm system.

The birth of regulation entered the locksmith world. This included business and specialty licenses and, in some states, contractors' licenses. Several states actually started to enforce these laws.

Some locksmiths began using the personal computer for keeping records, inventory, key codes, and accounts receivable. Through this effort, computer programs specifically for locksmiths were developed.

Up to the 1980s, the Slim Jim style of car-opening tools would open just about every common vehicle. Then in the 1980s, car manufacturers introduced security methods for car door locking mechanisms. For example, General Motors introduced the rigid cam and sheet metal guards to protect entire linkage rods. This initially caused quite a problem for opening the Chevrolet Beretta and Corsica. But locksmith ingenuity developed car-opening tools to overcome this problem, proving there is more than one way to unlock a lock mechanism.

In 1983, Assa Abloy AB started an American operation in Chicago.

In 1986, General Motors introduced Vehicle Anti-Theft System (VATS) in the Corvette, marrying electronic security with mechanical automotive locks. Over the following years, VATS also became PASSKey I/II and available on many General Motors vehicles.

In 1988, the Cadillac Allanté was one of the first vehicles equipped with bicycle style cable linkage.

Prior to the 1980s, many companies locks were a bit of "this and that" brands. The 1980s seemed to be a starting point of the "one company lock mechanism" concept. Even though many different brands of lock hardware could be installed, the mortise, rim and key-in-knob cylinders were becoming one brand, and more often than not, master keyed. This led to a significant increase in sizes and complexities of master keying jobs.

Schlage introduced the "L" mortise lock.

The 1990s were the end of the automobile vent windows. Also coming to an end were key-operated passenger door locks, keyed glove compartment locks and keyed trunk/tailgate locks. In 1995, Ford introduced the Passive Anti-Theft System (PATS) into specific models of the Taurus and Sable. Luxury vehicle manufacturers are using keyless systems with proximity cards to unlock and affect the starting operation.

Electronics are growing in acceptance in commercial and institutional applications. Electronic locks provide an efficient alternative for controlling access and eliminating "lost and misplaced key" problems. Electronic locks can provide audit trail, enabling companies to know who went where and when.

Most hotels are now equipped with card access lock mechanisms. Locks and security are moving towards cards instead of keys. Several companies are producing electronic locks for residential applications.

Locksmiths began installing lever handle locks and low power operators to accommodate building codes and ADA.
Delayed egress devices were introduced in the 1990s, but did not play a role in locksmith installations until 2000 or later.

With electronic access control being used for commercial, industrial, and institution operations, American Security Products (AMSEC) developed the SafeWizard®, an access control system designed around a safe. The SafeWizard controls access for up to 40 users, and maintains a log of the over 8,000 audit entries.

The Mas Hamilton Power Lever, a self-powered stand alone, electronic door lock, was introduced in the 1990s. Securitron began offering its MagnaCare Lifetime warranty.

This decade will be remembered having the capability to surf the internet 24 hours a day. Locksmith can visit many lock hardware manufacturers' websites to obtain technical information as well as templates and installation instructions after business hours. Beginning around 2000, the cost of a basic computer was less than $400. As a result, more and more locksmiths are computer literate and have access to computers. Some locksmith service vehicles are now equipped with a laptop computer, GPS and a cell phone.

Sargent & Greenleaf
First Changeable Combination Lock

Linus Yale
Mortise Pin Tumbler Lock (Flat Key)

1st Liquid-based Door Closer

Warren Taylor
Paracentric Key Inventor

Corbin Master Ring Invented

"Cylinder" First Used to Describe Lock

Henry Gussman
Key Duplicating Machine

Hugh Clark Russwin Von Duprin
First Exit Device (1904-1911)

Samuel Segal
Invents Jimmyproof Rim Lock

Frank Best
IC Core Invented

Harry Soref
Master Laminated Padlocks

Ilco Universal Code Machine Invented

W.R. Schlage
Cylindrical Lock Patent

W.C. Shinn
Introduced Chicago Ace Lock

Briggs & Stratton
Sidebar Auto Lock

Begins Production

Harry Miller
Invents Manipulation-proof Safe Lock

ALOA is Started

Starts Safe School

Adams Rite
Introduces 1850 Deadbolt

Falcon Lock Company Started

Tom Hennessy
Key Coding System

Keso Locks Introduced

Medeco High Security Invented

Introduces Locking Steering Wheel

Frank Agius
Framon Code Machine

Robt Labbe
Lab Introduces Pin Kits

1200 CM Code Machine

Introduces Locks in USA

Briggs & Stratton
VATS Introduced

Briggs & Stratton
Transponders Introduced