Virtually unchanged for 6000 years, this technology is ready for its next evolution

The humble lock began life in ancient Assyria, where the earliest mechanism was made of wood. The device was discovered in the Palace of Khorsabad in Iraq, which is also the location of the discovery of the world’s oldest known key. Remarkably, the lock and key system dates back to 4000 B.C.

The humble lock began life in ancient Assyria, where the earliest mechanism was made of wood. The device was discovered in the Palace of Khorsabad in Iraq, which is also the location of the discovery of the world’s oldest known key. Remarkably, the lock and key system dates back to 4000 B.C. Perhaps more astounding is that the fundamental principle of the lock and key that you use to secure your bicycle today, or to lock your baggage closed before you fly hasn’t changed in six centuries of human development. Whilst this suggests that the underlying idea had at least some merit, it also begs the question, where to next? But first, let’s explore the journey of the simple lock and find out how we got to where we are today.

The Mesopotamian locks were not simple mechanisms either, but were full pin locks, at a time in history when the only way to guarantee the security of something previously had been to post a guard in front of it. Unsurprisingly, the pin lock was a giant leap forward for mankind.

The Egyptians took the designs from ancient Assyria and built on the foundations they had been given. They replaced wooden components with brass, creating slightly more advanced mechanisms that then spread across Greece and eventually to the Roman Empire.

British craftsmen in the Middle Ages would make the next development in the story of the simple lock and key, fashioning the first all-metal warded locks. These are the old traditional locks that you still see on historic buildings or in museums, often with seemingly outsized keys. But the issue of security remained; these keys were often simple shapes that could be replicated by thieves without too much difficulty. So, the development of the lock rolled on.

The Industrial Age pushed the improvement of the lock design to new heights, and in 1784 a man named Joseph Bramah designed and patented a new high-security lock that can still be purchased in London today, with a virtually unchanged mechanism. A typical Victorian showman, Bramah, challenged all comers to pick his lock by attaching it to one of his store’s windows and offering a 200 gold guinea reward (around US$200,000 in today’s money) for anyone who could crack it. The lock was eventually picked, but not until 61 years later after an American locksmith toiled for 51 hours to do so. That same American locksmith, Alfred C Hobbs would then go on to crack the lock commissioned by the British government after a break-in at the Portsmouth Royal Dockyards to safeguard government and royal assets.

When the Americans turned their hand to creating the technology, rather than just breaking it, the result became the new global standard. Linus Yale Sr patented the modern pin and tumbler lock in 1843, and then his son, Linus Yale Jr improved the design 18 years later by inventing the flat grooved key. This combination of key and lock is likely the type of lock that you would find on your front door if you were to check.


And so the lock has remained virtually untouched for over 150 years. The design has been modified, improved, and refined to a degree, but the underlying principle of the Assyrian wooden lock and key from 6000 years ago has remained largely unchanged.

Many modern assets cannot simply be protected by a padlock, however well-designed, as we have an ever growing need to protect the intangible as well as tangible assets.

The security and software that protects your most sensitive information, including things like your online banking accounts, needs the same fundamental features that a physical lock requires; the ability to defeat attempts to open it illegitimately, while allowing access to its owner when required. 

Cyberlocks require a whole other level of complexity, the protection lying in the software rather than the hardware. The time when livestock, produce, and gold were the only things to be protected has long passed, and our requirements today are much more complicated. Our data is as valuable as our physical assets, and the methods of stealing have become endlessly more sophisticated. 

Many organisations have switched to complete security systems with software and hardware, employing security cameras, key-cards, and alarms, in order to avoid security breaches both of the physical and online premises. 

The requirements of the simple lock have changed, and need to evolve with our modern needs. We have moved from a simple physical lock to a full system of security measures, but what is the next step? In what new ways could the lock possibly evolve, to meet our ever more demanding security needs?

The answer could be found in the concept of the Internet of Things – the idea that everything around us should be able to communicate with each other. 

The strength of the Internet of Things emerges when multiple hardware and software security measures integrate into a system, the components of which all communicate seamlessly. Such a network would be able to track the behaviour of people, things, and data in real-time, giving a complete snapshot of the state of security at any point. 

TZ Limited is one of the frontrunners of IoT research and development, used not just for locks but for a whole range of applications for integrated connectivity and automation.

Working together intelligently, TZ SMArt Devices can sense, act, lock and audit activity based on secure instructions delivered online. It delivers powerful insights and a complete, real-time view of the state of the protected environment. 

The simple lock has remained unchanged for thousands of years but recently security has seen rapid progress, not just with the emergence of cybersecurity but also with the idea of intelligent locks and the Internet of Things. In a modern world, where security is an ever more complicated issue, the demands of our security systems will keep evolving. TZ’s cutting-edge SMart Locks are on the forefront of this development, and it will be interesting to see where the development of locks will go from here. 


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* Reach Markets has been engaged by TZL to assist with private investor management.


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