I think everyone has a bunch of keys - keys to the front and back doors, car, safe, shed – you name it, there’s a key for it – and the last one on the ring is inevitably the one you are looking for! It seems we are almost obsessed (quite rightly) with the safety of ourselves or our stuff. But did you ever wonder where the idea first came from?

Apparently, the first key and locks appeared 6000 years ago in ancient Egypt - made of wood, with the key looking like a toothbrush. They were heavy and not very durable, but they had the technique of falling pins to control the movement of the security bolt. The bolt could be freed by inserting these huge keys into the locks, and manually lifting them upwards, displacing the pins that were held down by gravity.

Sometimes these wooden locks were on the inside of doors, and a hole was made in the door for the arm holding the key to be inserted in an awkward manoeuvre before unlocking could proceed.

Interestingly, both the West and the East (mostly China) developed the idea of the lock and key independently, and even in those ancient times, people wanted the ability to safeguard their possessions and store them in places where nobody else could access them.

The Romans

The Romans introduced many improvements, making keys light enough to be carried around, but the expensive nature of the locks and their inability to sustain brute force or easy picking made them seem just a symbol of wealth, influence and nobility.

Small keys made from metals (even silver or gold) were often viewed as one of the most effective ways of publicly showing your wealth, as only very rich people could afford to have safes or doors with locks.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, locks and keys remained relatively unchanged for over 1500 years. Locksmiths who created locks and keys by hand continued to be employed only by the rich, who demanded more and more protection.

To combat thieves and trespassers, locks of that period became more and more complicated, often featuring complicated designs, multiple locks, fake locks, and anything else that could force a thief to eventually give up.

It is said that several centuries ago in Spain, there was a great distrust of locks. To be safe, the householders of a block would hire a watchman to patrol the neighbourhood and carry the keys to their dwellings. To enter or leave a house, the resident clapped his hands vigorously to summon the watchman with his key, so all comings and goings became a matter of public record - an interesting example of a community relinquishing privacy by foregoing the possession of a key.

Better tools

With the arrival of the 19th century and expansions in industrialisation, new metal processes, better tools and the ability to create small and durable lock components, the locking business came into its own.

Countless inventors focused their careers on solving the problems related to weak locks, breakable materials and improving protection against outside influences.

Over the period of just 100 years, locks and keys received drastic upgrades, mostly with the work of famous inventors such as Robert Barron, Joseph Bramah, Linus Yale Sr, James Sargent and Harry Soref - all of their innovations enabled the creation of the protective mechanisms which today surround us.

While industrial manufacturing has taken over the production of 99.9% of modern locks, locksmiths themselves are now more repairers than creators. However, locksmiths can still provide valuable input in the creation of high-end and expensive locking mechanisms, such as in vaults and personal anti-burglary safes.

Nowadays consumers enjoy the security brought by electronic locks, card and fingerprint access or eye recognition. With the existence of electronic locks, people no longer need to be restricted by keys.

Keys are symbolically presented for a 21st birthday, assuming that at 21, an individual is old enough to be considered a key holder of the family home. It was a sign of maturity, allowing the holder to come and go as they pleased, although nowadays the age of adulthood is set at 18 in many countries, but sadly maturity doesn’t always happen overnight!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan