Bank Vault Time Lock Collection
The purpose of a bank vault time lock is to keep the vault door locked until the timer
runs down. When the timer runs down a bolt is released and the door may be opened, or more
often, the right combination had to be dialed and then the door opened. While
the time lock is running, even the right combination would not be enough to open the door.
This was very important, since before the introduction of the timer in 1874, there was the
nasty problem of bank robbers kidnapping the bank president or cashier; marching him down
to the bank at night and forcing him to open the door. (There were no central alarm
systems back then).
The very early time locks had a combination bypass which could override the time lock.
This "secret" combination was known only to the time lock company and was not to
be disclosed to bank personnel. This seems a bit odd today, after all there's a risk of
someone from the time lock company robbing the vault, but there was some fear that
if the time lock failed, the vault door would have to be forced off (which is true). Most
time locks had two or more movements to provide redundancy in the event of one timer
failing, any one timer winding down to completion would allow the door to be properly
opened. A very few time locks pre-date 1874, but Sargent & Greenleaf
created the first commercially successful lock, the Model 2. They proved to
be quite reliable (not to mention the peace of mind to bank personnel once
the bad guys learned that they could not open the door) and are widely
accepted to this day.
Much of the information I have learned in this field has been generously given by Dr.
John Erroll, curator of the John M. Mossman collection at the General Society of Mechanics
and Tradesmen of New York. He and his son, David, have recently published a definitive
book on this subject titled American Genius Nineteenth-Century Bank Locks and Time
Locks, as well as articles by David Christianson and James W. Gibbs.
The collection has about 300 examples. Between 1874 and 1885 many
entrepreneurs entered the business but few were able to to navigate the
litigious environment dominated by the largest players and to be honest
their designs were often not as good. There were about a dozen makers whose
output was less than 50 units. Of those makers either no extant artifacts
are available or only a few are in either museums or private collections.
Some of those can be seen here. Of
those makers that met with some success all of those makers from 1874
through today are represented and of those nearly all of the various time
lock models each produced are represented.
I have a letter at the end of each lock's set of pictures. If you know anything
about a locks' history, type, model, etc. please email me, I'd love to learn more! I'm
always looking to buy time locks to enhance the collection, if you have
something that does not appear in my collection contact me if you want to
There are however a number of special time locks I am looking for and will
pay very well to obtain. Click on my
TIMES LOCKS WANTED page for these photos.
There is a new web-based discussion group specifically for those interested
in time locks, you are welcome to join here: