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Pin tumbler lock

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Title: Pin tumbler lock  
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Subject: Lock (security device), Skeleton key, Upload log archive/November 2003, Lock picking, Snap gun
Collection: American Inventions, Locks (Security Device)
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Pin tumbler lock

The pin tumbler lock (or Yale lock, after lock manufacturers Yale) is a lock mechanism that uses pins of varying lengths to prevent the lock from opening without the correct key. Pin tumblers are most commonly employed in cylinder locks, but may also be found in tubular pin tumbler locks (also known as radial locks).


  • History 1
  • Design 2
  • Master keying 3
  • See also 4
  • Patents 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


The first tumbler lock was found in the ruins of the Palace of Khorsabad in Iraq.[1] Basic principles of the pin tumbler lock may date as far back as 4000 BC in Egypt; the lock consisted of a wooden post affixed to the door, and a horizontal bolt that slid into the post. The bolt had vertical openings into which a set of pins fitted. These could be lifted, using a key, to a sufficient height to allow the bolt to move and unlock the door.[2] This wooden lock was one of Egypt's major developments in domestic architecture during classical times.[1]

In 1805, the earliest patent for a double-acting pin tumbler lock was granted to American physician Abraham O. Stansbury in England. It was based on earlier Egyptian locks and Joseph Bramah's tubular pin tumbler lock. Two years later, Stansbury was granted a patent in the United States for his lock.[3]

In 1848, Linus Yale, Sr. invented the modern pin-tumbler lock.[4] In 1861, Linus Yale, Jr. was inspired by the original 1840s pin-tumbler lock designed by his father, thus inventing and patenting a smaller flat key with serrated edges as well as pins of varying lengths within the lock itself, the same design of the pin-tumbler lock in use today.[5] The modern Yale lock is essentially a more developed version of the Egyptian lock.[1]


The pin tumbler is commonly used in cylinder locks. In this type of lock, an outer casing has a cylindrical hole in which the plug is housed. To open the lock, the plug must rotate.

The plug has a straight-shaped slot known as the keyway at one end to allow the key to enter the plug; the other end may have a cam or lever, which activates a mechanism to retract a locking bolt. The keyway often has protruding ledges that serve to prevent the key pins from falling into the plug, and to make the lock more resistant to picking. A series of holes, typically five or six of them, are drilled vertically into the plug. These holes contain key pins of various lengths, which are rounded to permit the key to slide over them easily.

Above each key pin is a corresponding set of driver pins, which are spring-loaded. Simpler locks typically have only one driver pin for each key pin, but locks requiring multi-keyed entry, such as a group of locks having a master key, may have extra driver pins known as spacer pins. The outer casing has several vertical shafts, which hold the spring-loaded pins.

When the plug and outer casing are assembled, the pins are pushed down into the plug by the springs. The point where the plug and cylinder meet is called the shear point. With a key properly cut and inserted into the groove on the end of the plug, the pins will rise causing them to align exactly at the shear point. This allows the plug to rotate, thus opening the lock. When the key is not in the lock, the pins straddle the shear point, preventing the plug from rotating.

Without a key in the lock, the driver pins (blue) are pushed downwards, preventing the plug (yellow) from rotating.
When an incorrect key is inserted into the lock, the key pins (red) and driver pins (blue) do not align with the shear line; therefore, it does not allow the plug (yellow) to rotate.
When the correct key is inserted, the gaps between the key pins (red) and driver pins (blue) align with the edge of the plug (yellow).
With the gaps between the pins aligned with the shear line, the plug (yellow) can rotate freely.

Master keying

A master keyed lock is a variation of the pin tumbler lock that allows the lock to be opened with two (or more) different keys. This type is often used for doorlocks in commercial buildings with multiple tenants, such as office buildings, hotels, and storage facilities. Each tenant is given a key that only unlocks his own door, called the change key, but the second key is the master key, which unlocks all the doors, and is usually kept by the building manager, so he can enter any room in the building.

In a master keyed lock, some or all of the pin stacks in the lock have three pins in them instead of two. Between the driver pin and the key pin is a third pin called the spacer pin. Thus each pin line has two shear points, one where the driver and spacer pins meet, and one where the spacer and key pins meet. So the lock will open with two keys; one aligns the first set of shear points and the other aligns the second set of shear points. The locks are manufactured so one set of shear points is unique to each lock, while the second set is identical in all the locks. A more secure type of mechanism has two separate tumblers, each opened by one key.

More complicated master-key lock systems are also made, with two or more levels of master keying, so there can be subordinate master keys that open only certain subsets of the locks, and a top-level master key that opens all the locks.

See also


  • U.S. Patent 31,278Lock
  • U.S. Patent 8,071Lock
  • U.S. Patent 9,850Lock and key


  1. ^ a b c James, Peter, and I. J. Thorpe. Ancient Inventions. New York: Ballantine, 1994. Print.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^

External links

  • The pin tumbler invention at Yale company site
  • How Your Home Lock WorksPopular Science, November 1946
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