Q: This everyday item dates back more than 2000 years and in some ways remains unchanged. However, we are beginning to use it less everyday. What is it?
A: A key.
To understand the history of the key, you must understand the evolution of the lock. One of the most sophisticated locks used in the ancient world was found in 1842 at Khorsabad—in what’s now Iraq—at the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II, who ruled just before 700 B.C. As the reproduction at left shows, the door opener would use a large, pronged wooden key to lift a series of movable pin tumblers into a position that allowed the wooden bolt to slide open. Although the key shown here looks unfamiliar—more like a rake or a comb than what we’re used to—the locking mechanism is stunningly similar to the ones we use today, most of which also rely on sliding tumblers into place. Although this relatively secure mechanism soon spread from Assyria to Egypt and across the ancient world, it eventually fell out of favor in the West, and wasn’t revived until the 1800s.