Monday, August 22, 2011

Unlocking the Mystery Behind the Padlock



QUESTION: I’ve found a Victorian padlock that I’d like to buy. Does it go back to the mid- 1800's during Queen Victoria's reign? It’s quite large, measuring 6 inches high x 4 inches wide x 1.5 inches deep. Was that a common size? The seller told me it’s called an "Iron Smoke House Lock," What does that mean?

ANSWER: The lock you’re thinking of purchasing isn’t all that rare. During the Industrial Revolution in England, Midland lock makers produced them by the thousands.

As England moved slowly from an agrarian culture to an industrial one towards the end of the 18th century, locksmiths began designing locks that cost less and had more strength. But burglars kept one step ahead of them. Up to that time, only wealthy merchants could afford strong locks. The average person had to make do with poorly made penny padlocks to protect his coal storage bin from thieves, and homeowners wanted locks for their doors and windows. With an increase in thievery, people demanded locks for everything from Bibles to carriages to schools and warehouses.

The answer to everyone’s needs was the padlock, a portable, if not somewhat cumbersome, device to protect against forced entry.

Robert Barron invented the double–acting tumbler lock in 1778. The tumbler or lever falls into a slot in the bolt which will yield only if the tumbler is lifted out of the slot to exactly the right height. Barron’s lock had two such levers, each of which had to be lifted to a different height before the bolt could be withdrawn.

Jeremiah Chubb improved on Barron's lock n 1818 . He incorporated a spring into the lock which would catch and hold any lever that had been raised too high by a lock picker. Not only did design add an extra level of security, it showed when someone had tampered with the lock.

Early padlocks offered  convenience since people could carry them and use them where necessary. Historians believe the Romans were the first to use padlocks. There’s also evidence that merchants traveling the ancient trade routes to Asia and China also used them to protect their goods.

Padlocks became known as “smokehouse locks” because people commonly used them to lock their meat in their smokehouses to prevent poachers from stealing it. Lockmakers, employing the traditional English design, made those first used in the U.S. from sheets of wrought iron and simple lever mechanisms.

Each lock consisted of a body, shackle, and a locking mechanism. The typical shackle is a “U” shaped loop of metal that encircles whatever is being secured by the padlock. Most padlock shackles either swung away or slid out of the padlock body when in the unlocked position. Improved manufacturing methods allowed the manufacture of better padlocks that put an end to the Smokehouse around 1910.

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