The Glory Of American Locks
They were gems of artistry as well as of innovation
The great locks of Europe have always been admired as things of beauty. Fifteenthand sixteenth-century masterpieces display wondrous detail; they were created as both the culmination of an apprentice’s training and his first calling card as a locksmith. But the masterpieces of American locksmithing are almost unknown. Built to secure the safes and vaults of an expanding country, they, too, are marvels of technical brilliance and jewels of artistry.
The earliest American lockmakers copied well-known English designs. In 1851 the lockmakers Day & Newell of New York sent one of their lock experts, Alfred Hobbs, to the first World Exposition in London, where he picked two state-of-the-art British locks to win a prize of more than £200. What his firm was really promoting, though, was a lock that couldn’t be picked through the keyhole. Their Parautoptic lock had 22 springs and three sets of 10 tumblers among its 83 moving parts, and it allowed the user to easily change the key to any of more than 36 million patterns. Surprisingly, its reign was short. By 1855 a rival lockmaker, Linus Yale, Jr., was publicizing his skill at picking the Parautoptic.
Yale, a major figure in American lock development, began his career at his father’s Newport, New York, lock shop. After his father died, in 1857, he moved to Philadelphia and then Massachusetts, where he formed a partnership with Halbert Greenleaf. One of Yale’s most important locks was his Double Dial combination lock of 1863, which won a silver medal at the Paris Exposition of 1867. Its two 100-number dials were themselves secured with Yale’s five-pin “Feather Key” lock, the direct predecessor to today’s most common locks. It could be set to open when either combination was entered or to require both combinations.
Yale died in 1868, when he was only 47, but his firm lived on with Henry Towne at the helm and was renamed in 1883 as the Yale & Towne Manufacturing Company. Yale & Towne would develop many brilliant bank-lock designs. Yale’s original business partner, Halbert Greenleaf, meanwhile, went on to back the inventor James Sargent, who had become prominent with his simultaneous introduction of the Micrometer, a device that could crack the best combination locks of its day, and the Magnetic combination lock, which was impervious to the Micrometer. But Sargent’s time locks were his greatest achievement.
A time lock secures a safe for a set period, such as Friday evening to Monday morning, during which no one can open it, even with the key or combination. Although time locks existed as early as 1831, bankers were at first reluctant to adopt a lock that barred friend as well as foe. But a series of robberies in the late 1860s in which bank managers were kidnapped changed that, and soon the time lock was not just accepted but expected. Sargent & Greenleaf’s Model 2 time lock—reliable, secure, and, by 1877, easy to use—sold thousands throughout the United States. It was the first commercially successful time lock (an earlier time lock that didn’t sell as well, Amos Holbrook’s Automatic, was employed by a pair of banks in Milford and Holliston, Massachusetts, in 1858 and foiled a burglary attempt that very year).
One of the early great lockmakers outside the Northeast was Joseph Hall, who began working at the age of 8 and was a partner in his father’s Pittsburgh safe company by the time he was 23. He was said to have a personal motto: “Let me alone and I will let you alone; but tread upon me and I will strike.” When Yale filed a patent-infringement suit against the Berkshire National Bank for using a Hall-made time lock, Joseph Hall took a courageous step. He substituted his company for the bank in the case. Despite this boldness, he lost at trial and on appeal. Yet he persevered, and in 1889 he filed a petition requesting that the United States Supreme Court review his case.
He died that year, but the court went on to find not only Yale’s but also Sargent’s current patents invalid, reversing years of time-lock cases. The decision vindicated not only the late Joseph Hall, but also many other makers. Hall’s Consolidated Time Lock Company survived and continued to be a major time-lock maker.
The sun began to set on the great age of American bank-lock development with the United States’s entry into the First World War. Demand for metals rose sharply, leading to the scrapping of safes, often with their locks. Then the end of the 1920s brought the Great Depression, a catastrophe felt nowhere more sharply than in the banking industry. New vault installations came to a such a sharp halt that Sargent & Greenleaf didn’t record a single domestic time-lock sale between 1929 and 1940. By the time the United States returned to peaceful commerce after World War II, low-cost plastics, the Federal Reserve System, and shifts in banking regulations had combined to make safes, vaults, and the locks that secured them far less important to the success of banks. The bank locks that survive from before then stand in tribute to the artisans and craftsmen of a vanished era of American industry.