A brief history of the time lock industry

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By the 1870's safe and especially lock technology had advanced to the point where it became difficult for all but the most experienced safe crackers and burglars to open a safe in the requisite amount of time before the morning when the owner would arrive for the day. The robbers then simply turned to the method of kidnapping the bank or store proprietor or other personnel who would know the safe combination, march them to the safe and demand upon threat of violence they open the safe. If the owner was lucky he would be tied up to be found, embarrassed and much poorer in the morning. If not so lucky he could wind up beaten, tortured and dead. Somehow there needed a way to protect the lives of those who could access the contents within the safe.

There were three early inventors who addressed this problem through the use of an independent time lock mounted within the safe and that would keep that safe locked until the appropriate time when the lock was pre-programmed to go "off guard" thus allowing the owner to dial in the correct combination and open the safe. The first was Francis Pye who exhibited his lock in the 1851 Fair of the American institute held at Castle Garden, New York City. It appears that he made only this one exhibition piece, never attempted to patent it and his product was never actually installed within a safe. However, he was the first to make a time lock designed to operate on a safe's bolt work. The second was Amos Holbrook in 1858. Based on an 1857 patent #17150, April 28, 1857. This lock had all the components that would make up what one would consider to be a time lock. There were two independent 72 hour time movements to provide safety in redundancy with these operating on the safe bolt work. This was the first time lock installed in a commercial setting at the Milford Bank, MA and operated without incident for eight years. The lock however, was not a financial success and less than a dozen of the locks were eventually produced. The rights were eventually sold to Thomas Keating an agent for the Yale Lock Manufacturing Company in 1876. Finally John Burge in 1872 was awarded a patent for what is known as his "Gothic Time Lock" because of the church window appearance of the patent model case. He refined his design in 1873 but failed to apply for a US patent an eventually sold the design in 1875 to Yale, again through Thomas Keating. Yale was not the only company looking at this new technology. Sargent and Greenleaf was also looking to capitalize on the idea of a time lock and their first time locks had many features that look suspiciously a lot like some of the components in Burge's Gothic Time Lock.

Sargent and Greenleaf (S&G) introduced the first large-scale, commercially produced time lock in 1874 the Model 2. Model 1 introduced in the same year was made in limited numbers and was a combined combination and time lock with the time lock operating directly on the combination lock by blocking the combination lock's fence from functioning while the time lock was on guard. Most other makers with the exception of the Hall Safe & Lock Co. which was later reconstituted as the Consolidated Time Lock Company in 1880, performed their duties by operating on the safe's bolt work rather than the combination lock. S&G's first stand alone time lock, the Model 2 was introduced concurrently with the Model 1 and was a commercial success. It contained the same two  movement module as in the Model 1 but without the combination mechanism. Instead it operated by blocking, also called 'dogging' the safe's bolt work. This was the answer to the banker's dilemma. While at first there was some concern about the owner being denied access to his own property, that rapidly gave way to the safety concern. Furthermore the sharing of the combination to other employees was not as great a risk when they could not return at night to open the safe. One must remember that this was before the time of effective alarm systems let alone central automatic alarm systems that automatically notified law enforcement and this was especially true in the smaller towns. The safe was all that stood between the robber and the contents. The time lock concept proved to be immensely popular and profitable. The people the time lock protected were generally wealthy and prominent and could afford the large margins enjoyed by the time lock manufacturers. For example in 1874 S&G charged about $400 for their Model 2 time lock. When Yale introduced in 1875 their Model 1 it too was about $400 and $450 with their optional Sunday Attachment™. No information is available for the wholesale cost of S&G movements since they were made in-house, but a Yale Model 1 when delivered by the E. Howard Watch Company in 1885 was $50.00. This is a 9 times or 900% markup! Just to put this into perspective $450 in 1874 is worth approximately $9,000 in 2016. The cost of a time lock could cost as much as the entire safe into which it was installed. Furthermore the time lock had to be inspected every year to ensure its proper function and guarantee against a lock out. As illustrated in the Yale receipt below the cost of this service was about $10.00 or $200 today; a lucrative continuing revenue stream in addition to the initial sale. In addition to the service agreement the time lock companies sold mandatory "insurance" to indemnify the owner for costs associated with a lockout. This for a mere $5.00 more! One would think that paying for the annual maintenance service should entail a guarantee from the firm against a lockout but apparently not. So the total annual revenue stream, at least in the case of the Yale company as evidenced by the receipt below was $300 in today's money. Many years later Kodak, Polaroid and later the computer printer manufacturers had a similar strategy to sell their product and lock the customer into continued sales of their firm's film and ink. But the time lock makers had them beat. Those later companies sold their products at or near cost to secure and lock in the after-sale revenue stream. The time lock makers made huge profits at the front end sale as well as the subsequent servicing. One might almost consider this a legal racket! This does, however, give the reader an idea of the great value that the owners gave to this new technological innovation.


Above is a time lock servicing receipt from the Yale Time lock Company dated August 24, 1888. The curious thing about this receipt  is that only one movement number is cited. The boiler plate language of the receipt has the word movements which makes sense since all Yale time locks had at least two and by this time three movements. The serial number of the time lock is noted as #168. That time lock had a movement #1792, but what about the others? One wonders what might happen to Yale's guarantee if one or more of the other movements within that time lock failed? My guess is that the service tech was simply sloppy, and indicated the one movement that actually needed attention, ignoring to note the other one or two that was in good condition.

Of course the first thing one might wonder is that with such profits there would surely be a rush of entrants into this business and indeed there was. The years between 1874 and 1885 saw a raft of new time lock companies and indeed the greatest number of innovations in time lock design occurred during this period. However, the early and dominant players, S&G and Yale were not going to let this happen without a fight.

The primary way they did this was through obtaining patents on time lock designs and the defense of those through subsequent patent litigation. Secondarily was the acquisition of competitor's patents and the companies outright. Ultimately in 1877 S&G and Yale participated in outright market collusion though an agreement to share the market and fix prices which occurred before the advent of antitrust and other market regulatory laws in the early 1890's. To drive this point home a catalog from 1883 issued jointly by S&G and Yale is illustrated below. It readily shows their wares side by side, pages 32 and 33 and, not coincidentally, the pricing is identical for time locks that would otherwise be in competition! Only S&G's Model #1 differs and was not really comparable as it also contained an integral combination lock assembly within the time lock. So the history of the development of the time lock industry and how it operated is a uniquely American story. It is one of invention,  competition (or the suppression thereof) and litigation. America was virtually the only country making this technology until well after WWII. Today this same model, less the market collusion, is practiced by American industry. The greatest number of law suits filed in the United States are corporate suits and the largest segment is in patent litigation. The tech industry based in Silicon Valley is one of the larger participants. Time locks were the high tech products of their day.


A third early major player, the Hall Safe and Lock Company came onto the scene in 1867, later merged into the Consolidated Time Lock company in 1880, and was owned by Joseph Hall. He challenged the cross patent monopoly system run by S&G and Yale and at first ran into a string of defeat in the courts. However his case was finally brought before the Supreme Court in 1889. The cross patent system was invalidated by the court; opening up the industry for the first time to competition without harassment from the two giant players. This victory was too late for Hall who died the year before. It also was too late for most other companies who by this time had been extinguished through litigation or acquisition. By this time the designs had been largely developed and the industry remained dominated by S&G and Yale. Consolidated did manage to carve out a small third place until their demise in 1927. Of course by now the remaining companies did have to reduce margins over time to protect their market share. After WWII other large safe and vault makers, notably Mosler and Diebold entered the market through a series of  acquisitions and consolidations of smaller makers who had come into the business after the threat of litigation had passed after 1900 and when any other meaningful remaining patents had lapsed. S&G as of 2005 became a subsidiary of Stanley Works and still survives in the time lock business as does Diebold. Time locks are no longer made in the US and the movements are generally Swiss made. A few foreign makers are also making time locks today, also using low cost Swiss movements.

In the 1970's around the time 'digital' was making its debut in the watch and instrument industries S&G and Chubb, a UK maker, tried their hand at electromechanical and all electronic time locks. These proved to be problematic. Lockouts due to battery failures and other electromechanical components doomed that effort. In fact, there has never been a documented case of a lockout when a properly maintained time lock that had two or more redundant mechanical movements was in use. While electronic time locks are still offered for use in small, inexpensive safes, the mechanical time lock is still the preferred method in use today. With the advances in time lock design, it no longer requires a skilled technician to service these. One just has to unfasten a few screws, pull out the malfunctioning time lock movement and swap it out for a new one.

I have included relevant patent drawings whenever available for a time lock model. The reader can look up the patent to read the associated text. Patents were an integral component shaping the industry, especially between 1877 and 1890 when patent litigation was used to suppress competition. Sometimes a patent can reveal functionalities of a time lock that one may have overlooked or some intent for a design that was in the original patent that never made it into the actual product.

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