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Prepare to be amazed by this 340-year-old smart lock

Prepare to be amazed by this 340-year-old smart lock


March 8th, 2017

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Detector lock with key, John Wilkes
Detector lock with key, John Wilkes

Do you think technology from circa 1680 can still surprise and delight in the age of the iPhone and Alexa? I didn't, but boy was I wrong.

Although we typically think that technology is driven by silicon chips and software, the definition is actually much broader: 

technology |tekˈnäləjē|

the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes

I often forget this when looking at the human timeline from my 21st century vantage point. Then last weekend I discovered the "detector Lock" in the Rijksmuseum, created by British locksmith John Wilkes. The lock (and those like it) is a triumph of 17th century technology and a precursor to the so-called “smart locks” we see flooding the market today.

Tilt the man’s hat to lock it

This expertly crafted brass and steel lock would have been used on a door behind which valuables were kept. It’s called a "detector" because it features a dial that counts the number of times it’s been opened without the owner’s consent. On the surface you see a man holding a pointer. A tiny button on the man's jacket resets the counter back to zero. The lock can be quickly (but less securely) activated by tilting the man's hat, and then unlocked by turning what looks to be an ordinary pull knob while simultaneously holding the hat. A key is required to fully activate both of the locking bolts, but the keyhole is hidden behind the man's swiveling front leg. It looks like something Spielberg dreamed up for an Indiana Jones film.

Here have a look, and remember, it’s over 300 years old:

Impressive, right? Even more so when you consider this lock’s rudimentary form of two-factor security is still employed today: something you have (a physical key) and something secret (its obscure operation).

Like I said, impressive.