18th century locks and keys“The inventor challenges the most skillful artist to create a key, also perhaps based on the original key, able to open this lock”. These incredible words appeared in an advertisement in the Calippe “serraturiere meccanico” [mechanical locksmith], published by Almanach Dauphin in 1777.


All this exaggerated security was in fact justified because in the course of the eighteenth century the art of the locksmith had reached truly extraordinary levels. True mechanical wonders were being produced that contained mechanisms that were very complex yet easy to use where one turn of a key moved a myriad of latches in many directions and in unison even allowing more than fifteen closures. A real masterpiece of mechanical orchestra.


Of course, these 18th century locks, marvels of technology, worthy of the most extraordinary Wunderkammer, were not for all occasions. According to the testimony of the most famous artist of the iron age, Jean Lamour, these locks were very secure but they required at least two years of work to be made. Incredible, if seen from a contemporary perspective.


In the race to see who could create the most remarkable prodigy, the Parisian locksmiths Merlin and Duval gained prominence and in the eternal struggle between cops and robbers scored a big plus for the former group with the “thief catcher” lock, otherwise known as the “superintendent”. It can still be admired in the Bricard Museum of Paris. The keyhole is inside a menacing lion’s mouth in bronze and if an assailant unfortunately inserted the wrong key they would experience the misfortune of having their hand irreparably stuck by the rapid strike of the feline mouth. During the nineteenth century there were also those who produced models not only with jaws but with revolvers ready to fire.


The French locksmith Masters were also forefront in this field. One of them, François Gamin, taught this noble art to none other than King Louis XVI in person, who was a great lover of keys and latches. Unfortunately for him this attendance worked against him because it was Gamin that opened the secret room for the revolutionaries that contained the evidence that would eventually cost the king his head.


If in France, the trend was towards virtuosity, in England there was a drive towards innovation such as the movable lever lock invented by Robert Barron that reached levels of accuracy equal to one tenth of a millimeter. Attributable to the geniality of Joseph Bramah instead are numerous famous devices such as draft pumps in pubs, the printer with numerator for banknotes and also the lock with pump keys, an idea that came to him following the serious concern regarding the large number of thefts sweeping the British capital at that time. Bramah even offered a cash prize to anyone able to outwit his lock, thus also demonstrating his ante litteram marketing skills. Of course he knew there was no risk and indeed the lock remained intact for a good sixty years.