Many historical figures are remembered for their main contribution to the world. Some are remembered for their leadership and bravery such as Alexander the Great and Nelson Mandela, while others are remembered for their innovative thinking and artistic achievements like Leonardo da Vinci or William Shakespeare. That said, very few can name historical figures who were into the art of locksmithing.
In this article, we bring you 5 of the most famous locksmiths in history.
1. Pharaoh Khafre (c. 2550 BC)
Pharaoh Khafre, who reigned during the 4th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, is best known for his monumental architectural achievements, notably the construction of the second Pyramid at Giza and the Great Sphinx.
In addition to these towering legacies, Khafre also played a significant role in the early development of locksmithing. His era marked the introduction of the wooden mechanical lock, a crucial advancement in the security of valuables, especially in treasuries and royal burial tombs. These locks, often weighing around 10 pounds, represented a significant step in the evolution of locking mechanisms, moving away from simpler wooden parts towards more sophisticated and secure designs.
Khafre’s reign thus contributed not only to the grandeur of Egyptian architecture but also to the practical aspects of safeguarding possessions.
2. Harry Houdini (1874-1926)
Harry Houdini, born Ehrich Weiss in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, is renowned for being one of the most influential magicians and escapologists of the 20th century. However, what many might not know is that his early years as a locksmith significantly influenced his later career as an escape artist.
Houdini’s locksmithing skills were acquired at a young age. At age 11, he began working for a local locksmith and quickly developed the ability to pick any lock. This early exposure to the mechanics of locks and keys undoubtedly contributed to his later success in escapology, where he routinely escaped from handcuffs, chains, and other restraints, often under dramatic and dangerous conditions.
One of Houdini’s greatest challenges as an escape artist involved a specially designed pair of handcuffs. In 1904, during a tour of Britain, the Daily Mirror challenged him to escape from handcuffs created by a Birmingham locksmith named Nathaniel Hart. These handcuffs were considered unpickable, featuring a complex mechanism with 21 levers and an old-style Bramah lock, hidden inside a tube like a gun barrel within a lock.
Houdini, who typically refused challenges involving bespoke handcuffs, accepted this one. The escape act, performed in front of 4000 spectators and more than 1000 journalists at the Hippodrome Theatre, took over an hour. Houdini eventually emerged victorious, brandishing the unlocked cuffs. This event remains one of the most talked-about feats in his career, with ongoing speculation about its authenticity.
Throughout his life, Houdini combined his locksmithing knowledge with a flair for showmanship. He became famous for daring and sensational escape acts, such as slipping out of various restraints while locked in trunks, milk cans, or submerged underwater. His Chinese Water Torture Cell Act, introduced in 1913, where he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass and steel cabinet filled with water, is one of his most famous acts.
3. Alfred C. Hobbs (1812-1891)
Alfred Charles Hobbs, born in Boston in 1812, significantly impacted the locksmith industry. Starting his career in wood carving and carriage building, Hobbs shifted to lock-making while working at the Sandwich Glass Company. His ability to pick locks led to a role as a salesman for the New York firm Day & Newell.
Hobbs gained fame in 1851 at London’s Great Crystal Palace Exhibition. At a time when English firms dominated lock-making, Hobbs challenged this superiority by picking the reputedly unpickable Bramah lock, which had remained secure for over 60 years. His success took 51 hours over 16 days, earning him 200 guineas and shattering the myth of unbreakable English locks. Following this, Hobbs also picked the Chubb detector lock, another respected lock of the time.
This event, known as “The Great Lock Controversy,” showcased Hobbs’ exceptional skills and forced a reevaluation of lock security standards. Despite skepticism and controversy, Hobbs’ achievements were a turning point in lock manufacturing as it forced them to improve their designs and reconsider the security of their products.
4. Linus Yale Jr. (1821-1868)
Linus Yale Jr., born in Salisbury, New York in 1821, significantly advanced the field of locksmithing and lock design. Initially interested in portrait painting, Yale shifted focus to locksmithing after his father’s death, who was also a renowned locksmith specializing in bank locks.
Yale’s major contribution was the refinement and popularization of the pin-tumbler lock, a design based on ancient Egyptian locks. His version used a small, flat key with serrated edges, which was a major improvement over the large, cumbersome keys used at the time. This invention, patented in 1865, led to the development of the Yale cylinder lock, revolutionizing the lock industry.
Yale’s concern about the vulnerability of traditional locks, susceptible to picks, explosives, or heat, drove his innovations. He developed the “Yale Infallible Bank Lock” in 1851 for safes and vaults, featuring a combination set by the owner and a keyhole protected behind a steel plate for enhanced security. Yale continued to innovate in lock design, focusing on making locks safer and more user-friendly.
In addition to locks, Yale patented various other devices, including tools for reversing the motion of screw-taps and improvements in mechanics’ vices. His groundbreaking inventions were recognized at world fairs both in the United States and overseas.
Yale’s legacy was cemented with the founding of the Yale Lock Manufacturing Company in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1868, alongside Henry Robinson Towne. Although Yale died shortly after its inception, the company grew into a global enterprise.
5. King Louis XVI (1754-1793)
King Louis XVI of France, who reigned from 1774 until his execution in 1793, is well-remembered for his role in the events leading up to the French Revolution. However, a less-known aspect of his life was his deep interest in locksmithing, which he pursued as a hobby. This hobby revealed a different side of Louis XVI, contrasting with his often-criticized role as a monarch.
Louis XVI’s interest in locksmithing started in his childhood and continued throughout his life. He was known for his passion for all things mechanical and practised as an amateur locksmith.
His collection of common and ornamental locks at his Palace of Versailles and his learning under Francois Gamain, the royal blacksmith, are testaments to his dedication to the craft. He created many different types of locks, demonstrating his skill and interest in the mechanical aspects of locksmithing. He even had a little workshop at Versailles where he amused himself in making locks.
This hobby was one of his methods of coping with the stress of ruling, as he was not originally raised to be king. His older brother was the designated heir until his early death, which meant Louis XVI was not given the same preparation for the throne as his brother might have been.
Interestingly, the man who nurtured his lock for locksmithing, Francois Gamain, was a huge player in his downfall. During the French Revolution, King Louis XVI, anticipating political unrest, had Gamain construct a secret iron chest at the Tuileries Palace to hide incriminating documents. However, Gamain later disclosed its existence to the authorities, fearing for his safety or being swayed by revolutionary ideals.
The chest’s contents, revealing the king’s counter-revolutionary actions and foreign negotiations, severely undermined his reputation. This betrayal by Gamain was pivotal in the revolution’s trajectory, contributing to Louis XVI’s trial and execution.
The art of locksmithing, often overshadowed by more celebrated achievements, has its own set of historical figures who made significant contributions. This article highlighted five such individuals, from the architectural and security innovations of Pharaoh Khafre to the escapades of Harry Houdini, whose locksmith skills underpinned his famous escape acts.
We delved into Alfred C. Hobbs’ landmark achievements in lock picking that challenged the security norms of his time, Linus Yale Jr.’s groundbreaking inventions that revolutionized lock designs, and King Louis XVI’s lesser-known locksmithing hobby that contrasted with his tumultuous reign.
These individuals remind us that innovation and skill can manifest in various forms, each leaving a unique imprint on history.