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. (1)

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 sell. 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. I also have some time LOCKS AVAILABLE FOR SALE OR TRADE.

There is a new web-based discussion group specifically for those interested in time locks, you are welcome to join here:

Click on picture to view collection


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1. A series of articles by David Christianson on this topic first appeared in Horological Times, May 1989 and continued through 1994. Then another overview article appeared in the NAWCC Bulletin, December 2004. I've been able to locate a few articles by James W. Gibbs in the NAWCC Bulletin, February, April and October 1965. There may be other writings from these authors that I have missed.

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