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Puzzle Locks and Trick Locks

Puzzle Locks and Trick Locks

If you are interested in wooden mechanical puzzles or any puzzles in general, one category of puzzles you need to explore at some stage are Puzzle Locks. Puzzle Locks are defined by the Hordern-Dalgety classification system as an Opening Puzzles (OPN), in which the principle object is to open it, close it, undo it, remove something from it; or otherwise get it to work.

Puzzles of this category, usually comprise a single object or associated parts such as a box with its lid, a padlock and its hasp, or a nut bolt. The mechanism of the puzzle is not usually apparent, nor do they involve general assembly or disassembly of parts that interlock in 3D.

Puzzle locks are also commonly known as ‘trick’ locks and are one of the most popular mechanical puzzle categories. They usually consist of an ordinary looking lock with unusual or hidden mechanisms that cannot be opened like a normal padlock, requiring an unusual solution, or trick, to enable it to be unlocked. This may involve the use of an external matching key(s), ingenious internal mechanisms or additional tools that can frustrate and keep you confused for some considerable time.

There are a great many puzzle locks that require one or two simple tricks to open them, and by contrast, a number of very special puzzles that have baffled and bewildered even the very best puzzlists. In this article, we will explore a number of them along with the history of keys and locks and puzzle locks themselves.

When it comes to puzzle locks, there are a great number of puzzle designers whose puzzles you can explore including Roger D, Lambert Bright, Akio Kamei, Gary Foshee, Tim Detweiler, Ivo Splichal, Marcel Gillen and several others who have produced what are considered to be the most ingenious, quality puzzle locks in the world. In particular, those of Dan Feldman, Rainer Popp, Splinter J. Spierenburgh and Wil Strijbos.


We all interact with keys and locks on a daily basis and the use of key-based locks spans back to the origins of modern human civilisation over around 6,000 years ago.

The Assyrians Egyptians (6000-4000 BC)

The earliest known examples of keys and locks have been uncovered in ancient cuneiform texts in Mesopotamia from the ruins of the cradle of civilisation in modern-day Iraq. Research completed by archaeologists and linguists have theorised that our ancestors feared losing precious belongings from theft and arson just as much as we do today. To protect ther belongings, they created mechanical security devices known as door seals.

These simple seals used a peg-through-plaque system as a way of protecting their property, an invention that would later become a pin tumbler lock and in turn the many exciting mechanical puzzle locks we get to enjoy today.

Prior to this, the first locksmiths denied access by physically placing a beam across a door on the inside, with the drawback that someone had to permanently secure and un-secure the room.

The Egyptians developed the first wooden lock and key over 4000 years ago, although some experts think that the Chinese from around the same period, also used locks and keys. They solved the problem of opening a locked door from outside by placing pins within a small opening within the door, otherwise known as a pin-tumbler. By inserting a long wooden toothbrush-shaped key through the opening, the Egyptians could lift those small pins and unlock/lift the bolt across the door.

This type of lock had a number of disadvantages due to the fact that both the lock and key were made from wood and the key itself was very heavy. Over time, these locks were improved by developing more intricate networks of wooden pegs.

The Romans (400 BC)

The big evolution came with the introduction of the first metal locks built by Romans, over 2500 years ago. Using iron and bronze, the Roman engineers and metal smiths developed strong, smaller and lighter locks and improved upon the Egyptian locks further by using projections or obstructions within the locks, known as wards. The Roman locks used springs that held the tumblers in place.

With more intricate locks they further developed keys from flat objects to an object with thin rectangular pins or teeth on the end that had to bypass the wards for the door to be unlocked – a “Skeleton key.”

As well as inventing warded locks; they built the first portable padlocks too. Padlocks were U-shaped locks that were also invented at around the same time by the ancient Chinese, completely independently, of course. The Roman design was used for over seventeen centuries.

Medieval Europe (14th to 17th Centuries)

The Germans were pioneers in Europe when it came to the design of locks and keys. The Italians, French and the English soon followed. The period between 14th to 17th centuries in Europe saw the proliferation of the profession of locksmiths – men who designed locks. They were the ultimate artists of those times, respected by all, including by the royalty, with many achieving international fame. Noblemen specially commissioned famous locksmiths to design locks for their homes and intricate safes.

During the Medieval Era, the locks designed for noblemen used designs with their coats-of-arms and were really quite expensive. They were a triumph of the locksmith’s art and imagination. These locks had hidden keyholes, complicated tricks and sophisticated wards. This was also the era of Masterpiece locks, which were created by locksmiths to prove their credentials to their patrons.

Industrial Revolution (18th to 20th Centuries)

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, massive technological advances were made in the design of locks and keys. Some of the greatest locksmiths of the era were Robert Barronin, who invented the double-acting tumbler lock in 1788; Joseph Bramah, who invented the world famous Bramah locks in 1774; Jeremiah Chubb, who invented the detector lock with superior internal security in 1818; Linus Yale, Sr. who invented the first pin tumbler lock in 1848; James Sargent, who had two major inventions to his credit – the first combination lock in 1857 and first time lock mechanism in 1873; Samuel Segal, who invented the first jemmy-proof lock in 1912; and finally, Harry Soref, who invented the first modern padlock in 1924.

Modern Day Locks/Keys and Trick Locks

Most of the locks in use today are based on the inventions of the legendary locksmiths listed above and the majority use flat keys that activate mechanisms invented in the 1800s e.g. warded locks, lever tumbler locks and pin tumbler locks. Trick locks often make use of these.

But why do Trick Locks arouse so much curiosity in us? Why are we so attracted to these intriguing objects? Is it because they have the power to lock away secrets? Is it because they offer the possibility to be unlocked by alternate methods other than the traditional turn of a key? Or is it simply because everyone, puzzler or not, are in the same playing field since it’s up to each one’s intuition and cunning to unlock its secret.

Part II
In Part II we will explore popular Puzzle Locks and Trick Locks…

Image © Popplock-T4-by-Rainer-Popp

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