A resource for consumers, locksmiths, and security professionals.
Posted On by Ralph Goodman
Throughout history, there have been many security innovators. We cannot highlight every person who has improved global safety in one way or another in one article, but there are some individuals whose contributions to physical security are still protecting people and their valuables. This list also creates somewhat of an interconnected web of security linage. Each person named on this list has made a contribution based on the work of others. Credit is, of course, due for how they assist in furthering the lineage of security innovation. So without further ado, here are History’s most important security innovators.
Linus Yale Jr. is credited with the invention of the modern pin tumbler lock. A member of the same Yale lineage that Yale University is named after, Linus made a name for himself with his artistic and mechanical mind. With the help of his father, Linus Yale Sr., Yale Jr. created the locks and keys that we are all familiar with today. Linus Yale Sr. opened his lock shop in New York during the 1840’s, where he developed a reputation for making bank locks.
In the late 1850’s, Yale Sr. passed away. Linus Yale Jr. had just wanted to be a painter, but the news of his father’s death brought him closer to the lock company. During this time of increased involvement, Linus Yale Jr. began to push for the adoption of cylinder locks. And he would eventually start his very own company during the year of 1860, in Massachusetts.
It was during this time that Yale created what would be regarded as the first modern pin tumbler lock design. However, Yale also provided many innovations in the combination locks used on safes. For all of the patents he has received and work he has done to improve modern locks, Linus Yale Jr. has become widely regarded as the father of modern security.
Linus Yale Jr. also happened upon some rather startling information of his day. He was experimenting with a competitor’s lock (specifically the Day & Newell lock that Alfred Hobbs was selling) when he opened it. He did not have the key and was startled by his success. It was in this moment that Yale understood that no lock could ever be truly secure. There would always be a new tool for a new lock, so every theoretical security measure ever devised would be vulnerable to a perfectly tailored theoretical device. He said quite famously, “Any lock that takes a key, can be picked”. Yale locks are still available to this day.
Though he may not get much credit in popular historical coverage of modern lock manufacturing, Abraham O. Stansbury was the first person to receive a patent for his double-acting pin tumbler lock. This took place in the year 1807, about a half a century before Yale would get his own patent, and it is the earliest patent for a pin tumbler lock. Stanbury was an American physician, and inventor, who actually has a letter that he wrote to Thomas Jefferson transcribed online.
If you take a look at the information on Stansbury’s patent, you will see that the lock is referred to as the “Egyptian lock”. This is because the lock’s design is based on information gathered about ancient Egypt’s locking mechanisms. It is not known who the creator was of that device, but the first man to hold the patent for it was Abraham O. Stansbury. The reason that he is so important, is because the patent he filed would become the basis for the improvements that would lead Yale to create the modern pin tumbler lock.
In 1778, Robert Barron invented the double-acting lever lock. This is one of the most important developments in lock history. Before this lock type was created, the security world was in the era of the warded lock. Barron introduced the concept of the unique key, which disrupted the largely understood insecurity of locks in general. A lock, up until this point, could be opened by anyone who understood how the lock worked, with little consideration for making a working key.
The basics of the first lever lock design were that a key would be inserted, lifting an internal lever. The key would then grip the bolt and pull the bolt back to unlock the device. This design had internal mechanisms within the body of the lock, which lifted and moved as they interacted with the key. Before this, the lock was hardly interacting with the key, which made bypasses extremely simple.
However, there was an issue with this lock that Barron would be made aware of by yet another one of history’s greatest security innovators, Joseph Bramah. These suggestions would get Barron to the double-acting lever lock, though what he had had before was a more simplistic single-acting lever lock.
More than anything, Joseph Bramah, was an inventor. He is widely regarded as co-inventor of the hydraulic press and known for the part he played in improving the “water closet” design. It seemed as though Bramah had a knack for improvement, and when he saw Robert Barron’s lever lock patent, he sent him a letter detailing how the design might be improved. Pointing out that Barron’s lever lock could be overcome by lifting the lever out of the way (not to a specific height, but as high as it would go), and then the bolt could be moved with a key-like device.
Bramah determined that you could make a chamber that could be cut into the lever. This would force the lever to be lifted to a specific height, then the key would stop. This solved the issue of being able to lift the lever completely out of the way and restricted movement of the bolt.
To guard against picking and impressioning, a capital “H” shape cut was made along the lever, so there was a possibility of going too high and too low with your covert entry methods. Then the trick was adding more levers with other “H” like patterns so there would be more grooves on the keys and more elements of the lock that would require movement to prevent illegal entry. This stepped key design opened up the door for unique keying designs.
But all of that was just a suggestion for someone else. Joseph Bramah did not make the step key double-acting lever lock. Instead, he designed his own creation, known as the Bramah lock. The Bramah lock is very similar in appearance and functionality to the modern day tubular lock. Though the system used sliders similar to what many car locks use now, and not pin tumblers like a modern tubular lock.
The complexity of the locks and keys could vary so that security could be scaled from say a bank vault to a common house lock. And when the lock was picked by feeling for the gaps on the sliders and lining them up along the “side bar”, Bramah continued to innovate, creating false gates. These serrations added by a man known as W. Russell, a man who worked for Bramah. False gates would confuse pickers as to what they were feeling when they attempted to manipulate the lock.
When England requested a lock from its citizenry that would not only be secure but allow the owner to know if an attempt had been made to open it illegally, Jeremiah Chubb answered the call. His invention is known as the Chubb Lock or Chubb detector lock. This is a lever lock that uses the step pattern key with multiple double-acting levers, but with an added twist. If the levers inside are elevated too high, they will lock into place and not even the rightful key will open the lock.
A secondary reset key is needed to make the lock unusable again, but the right key will still need to be inserted after the levers are reset. The reset key was the best example of a detector lock, which had been made before. However, those locks could not be reset, and once they “detected” someone had attempted to pick them, and only destructive entry would open the lock. There was no reset for detector locks until Chubb came along.
It was Jeremiah Chubb along with Joseph Bramah that created the public consensus of perfect security. Between these two locks, England saw a period of more than three decades where these locks could not be picked. This changed public life. For the first time, you could place a lock on something, leave that thing in your house, and walk away from it. Up until this point, if you had something of value, the only place you would trust to keep it secure was a bank. Jeremiah Chubb would not live long enough to see his invention picked, but his legacy would outlive him.
Tied forever to the legacy of Joseph Bramah and Jeremiah Chubb is a man by the name of Alfred Charles Hobbs. Hobbs was an American Locksmith who took up the challenge of picking the new and improved Bramah lock. The Bramah lock (with W. Russell’s new false gates) was on display in the shop window of Brahma’s store front in Piccadilly with an engraving that read, “The artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock shall receive 200 Guineas the moment it is produced. Applications in writing only”. The Chubb lock did not advertise its challenge in quite the same way, but there was some sport in it because it was determined to be unpickable.
It was Alfred Charles Hobbs who took it upon himself to prove all everyone wrong that believed these to be unpickable locks. And this was a real belief until this innovator changed the way we thought about locks forever. The idea that all locks can be picked in an innovative idea that is directly tied to Hobbs and his subversion of the British expectation that they had truly perfect security. Hobbs picked both of the world’s unpickable locks and got security professionals innovating again. This happened in the year of 1851.
Alfred C. Hobbs had developed a reputation as a world renowned lock picker before the Great Exhibition was held in 1851. He was working with the Day & Newell company in New York selling their locks with a hard bargain. If he could open the bank’s safe, they would have to buy his locks. His locks sold well. And during the Merchants Exchange exhibition Mr. Woodbridge, of Perth Amboy, offered $500 if anyone could open his safe given thirty days. It took Hobbs an hour. This was in 1848.
When Hobbs got to England during the time of the Great Exhibition, it only took him 25 minutes to pick the Chubb detector lock (the newest model of the time). Still, he went further, re-locking the device, which took another 10 minutes. The idea was that a person would know their lock had been opened if it was unlocked when they got back home, so if he could not lock it, it would still be detecting entry as intended. (Even with multiple highly documented public displays of the Chubb lock being picked, Jeremiah Chubb’s descendants would continue to publicly deny Hobb’s success).
When Hobbs defeated the Brahma lock, he took a total of 15 days. Committing a total of 52 hours to the lock. Everything was set up for him to have the best possible chance to open the lock, so the concessions ended up making the picking attempt unrealistic. The lock was mounted on wood. He had all of his tools. And he was completely unsupervised.
There is debate over if the lock was “picked”, or damaged in a brute force method, but Hobbs did create a device that could open the Brahma lock. The lock was then updated and placed back in the window after Brahma gave Hobbs his money, but it was too late for the idea of perfect security. Hobb’s innovations in security penetration had changed the public’s perception of safety.
Vivant Denon is important for his research and documentation of largely lost methods of security. His research was mainly just the transcribing of ancient Egyptian lock making. However, this unearthed the knowledge that would be used to create the coming innovations to locks. Without Denon, there would be no notes for Stansbury to use in order to file his patent for the Egyptian lock. Had that patent not been filed, what would Yale have had to improve upon? As far as history goes, Denon is the earliest name we can assign to the documentation of security innovation.
Vivant Denon is a relatively well known historical figure. He was the first ever Director of the Louvre (one of the world’s most famous museums). A job he was given by Napoleon. This was largely a result of Denon accompanying Napoleon during his Egyptian campaign. He proved himself to Napoleon Bonaparte doing the job of gathering materials for literary and artistic ventures.
This, followed by Denon’s curation of the gathered artifacts and information, led to the detailed notes that give us in the current age the knowledge of Egyptian locks. He also started the field of modern Egyptology. And though locks may have first come from ancient Mesopotamia, what started off the most important security innovations came from this venture.
Henry R. Towne partnered with Linus Yale Jr. to form the Yale and Towne Lock Company. He was a large driving force for Yale Jr. and is one of the main reasons the Yale name is so synonymous with locks. It was his manufacturing knowledge that created the market place for mass produced security devices. In fact, the success of the Yale and Towne Company can almost exclusively be rested upon the mantle of Henry Towne, because three months into their business partnership, Linus Yale Jr. passed.
Towne is famous for his extremely critical view of all of the lock innovations of his era (and there were many). As a security innovator, he penned the book Locks and the Builders Hardware: A Hand Book For Architects (available for free here). The book is unbelievably useful for anyone hoping for more insight into the security of that time. And in the book Towne shares a few choice words about how everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of creating a lock.
Towne was very well known for publicly proclaiming that “All locks can be picked”. He said this when he sold his own locks. He was bent on having the world know that there would never be perfect security. (This legacy would be ignored by his company after his death, but his contribution to the widespread knowledge of basic security flaws would persist).
Between his assistance in making the Yale lock what it is today, his detailed documentation of locks and security, and his critical eye on the other security improvements of the time, it is not a stretch to include Towne on this list. His achievements are linked to those of others, but he is significant in his own way, though it may seem more subtle than it truly is. (Oddly enough, Henry R. Towne is also a distant relative of lock historian and security personality Schuyler Towne.)
Sargent and Greenleaf is a company known for their quality products. You might recognize the name from your safe dial, or maybe even from their contribution to one of the strongest padlocks in the world. But before the company was Sargent and Greenleaf, it was Yale and Greenleaf.
Linus Yale Jr. had teamed up with American lock manufacturer Halbert Greenleaf, and James Sargent was nothing more than a sales representative for the company. But he was never just that. Sargent had a gift for mechanical engineering and created what was hailed at the time to be the best safe combination dial in existence. This was Sargent’s Magnet Bank Lock.
Sargent continued to push security innovations after his former employer, Yale and Greenleaf, disbanded during the American Civil War. One of the most amazing things about James Sargent is that he did not stop innovating in the security world after his success.
He created further improvements on the combination dial and made some of the most widely regarded time locks of his day. This got the attention of Halbert Greenleaf, as the Civil War had now ended, and the two went into business together. The company he founded still continues his legacy of security innovation.
One of the few contemporary names you will see in this article is Marc Weber Tobias. He has created many innovations within the security space with his unrivaled dedication to finding the flaws in the products everyone thinks are safe. One of his most notable achievements is the work he did with Tobias Bluzmanis in publicizing the flaws with and vulnerabilities of Medeco locks of the time. His campaign to get better testing parameters for locks led to Medeco actually addressing the flaws of their products.
One of the reasons that he is important as a security innovator is that he takes the issues he finds to the press and has the ability to get buzz around an issue, even in an era where no one cares about security. He gives lectures on these issues all over the world, and even holds patents on bypassing tools and methods for both improving and undermining security. What is most important about the innovations of Marc Tobias is that he can mobilize manufacturers, the press, and the lock picking community to change.
His skills are largely due to his background as an investigative attorney, where he deals mainly with technical fraud. His professional work has him battling for the consumers of security products. He is also a skilled writer, which is instrumental in the widespread reach of his ideas.
Some of his accolades include disclosing the issues with gun locks that were intended to prevent children from using firearms, and the widely publicized ballpoint pen bypass for many popular tubular locks. His hope is to change the ways that security companies look at the weaknesses of their products, and he continues to make headway on this issue.
Most of the security innovators on this list lived during the same time period. There are a few exceptions to that, but the reason for this trend largely has to do with the era. The Victorian era of Britain created a social climate that demanded security innovation. As a result, better physical security was a prominent concern, leading to many governmental and philanthropic ventures to encourage security innovation. This had to do with a growing amount of wealth, urbanization, and material possessions created by the industrial revolution. Since then the leaps being made in security have not been as obvious because the culture has not found them as important. I hope this will change again as we no longer have the societal excuse that we were raised to believe in perfect security.
Category: Safety & Security