Key for the Sydney Mint building, steel, maker unknown, London, England, 1890-1920
Throughout history keys have secured objects from theft and people from danger but they also reflect contemporary design technological innovation. While keys are designed to be unique they are never created in isolation and understanding of keys is reliant on understanding the locks they were created with. To a degree the significance of keys is also linked to the objects which they were intended to secure.
Humans have been using locks and keys to protect there goods and there persons for thousands of years. Wooden locks have been discovered in Khorsabad in Egypt which are at least 4000 years old. Roman locks and keys made of metal were harder to break and were also more intricate. The locks, often made of iron, had falling pins or tumblers while the keys were often made from bronze.
In medieval times permanent buildings such as castles and churches required more substantial locks and keys. Another important use for keys was their use in securing chest and boxes which contained valuable item from jewellery to religious icons. From the Norman period until the 1500s keys became increasingly ornamental while the bows, the part turned by the fingers, became more finely cut. The lozenge shape was popular in the 1300s while the kidney shape became popular in the 1400s. The collar to prevent the key being inserted to far into the lock appears in the 1400s.
These keys and locks were generally made for the elite as it was not until the nineteenth century that they could be mass produced on a scale which made them cheap enough for everyone to use. The era of modern locks with tumblers really started in the early nineteenth century although Joseph Bramah's lock patented in 1784 was a precursor to the locks and keys designed by Chubb, Hobbs, Newell and Yale.
Of these Linus Yale's lock and key patented in 1844 set the standard for modern locks. His pin tumbler cylinder lock still forms the basis of many locks as it was not only secure but it was also easily adaptable, used small keys and was relatively cheap to make. As a result of their manufacture on a large scale keys and locks also lost some of their ornate design presented instead a more functional look.
Between 1890 and 1920 these keys were used to secure the 'Police Strongroom' and 'Coining Department' at the Sydney Mint. When superseded the keys passed into the hands of the Government Architect in the New South Wales Public Works Department who donated them to the museum in 1982.
Monk, E., 'Keys, their History and Collection, Shire Publications Ltd, Pembrokeshire, England, 1999
Stuart, C., 'Locks' in Ramsey, L. G., (ed) 'The Concise Encyclopaedia of Antiques', Volume 4, Butler and Tanner, London, 1959
Geoff Barker, March, 2007