The Bramah lock

Joseph Bramah, son of a Yorkshire farmer is regarded as one of the 18th century’s most profilic inventors. Beer pumps, a water closet and a device for numbering banknotes were some of his ingenious inventions. But the Bramah lock is perhaps the most famous.


Until that time, any lock- be it expensive or not-could easily be tampered or picked by anyone using a little bit of skill. After attending a few lectures on technical aspects of locks, Bramah designed a lock of his own, and would eventually receive a patent for his design in 1784-11 years after he had walked 170 miles from Yorkshire to London to seek a job. A year later, he started the Bramah Locks company at 124 Piccadilly, which is today based in Fitzrovia, London and Romford, Essex.

  • The lock shaped like a barrel used a cylindrical key and keyhole.
  • The end of the key had a number of slots of varying depths.
  • When the key was inserted into the lock, it would press a number of wafers to a specified depth and enable the key to turn and open the lock.
  • Fixed wafers were used. The original lock had 18 different wafers, which allowed 450 million different combinations of notches.

Thus, the company, famed for producing locks with superior resistance to lock picking (opening a lock by manipulating the device without the orignal key), claimed that their locks were burglar proof and even put forth an infamous challenge that read as follows:

“The artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock shall receive 200 guineas the moment it is produced.”

For 67 years, hundreds of locksmiths tried and eventually failed. The prize was unclaimed until, the Great Exhibition of 1851, when American locksmith Alfred Charles Hobbs was able to open the lock and, following some conflict about the circumstances under which he had opened it, was awarded the prize.

It wasn’t easy though. In fact, it had taken him about 51 hours, spread over 16 days, in order to open the lock!


Ever since Hobbs picked the lock, it has been modified in terms of design and structure. It went from having 18 iron slides and 1 central springs, to 13 steel slides, each with its own spring.

The design presented unique challenges in the field of engineering to create tools capable of making the different parts involved. It was so brilliant in design and effective in execution that the Bramah lock and variations of its design are used to this day.


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