Peter Takes on History
March 2, 1887
Masterlock Makes Security Possible
Locks have been around as long as thieves. The ancient Egyptians had locks. The Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, Chinese all had locks. They mostly worked the same way; some sort of bolt that wouldn't retract unless you had or “knew” the key. One problem with ancient locks; they were mostly made of soft stuff; wood, malleable metals. That’s only going to protect your stuff if thieves lack opportunity or ambition.
Ferrous metal locks, that was a step forward! You’ve got money, jewels, maybe secrets; you hire a blacksmith, they fashion some sort of mechanism. It’s time consuming and costly.
Industrial revolution - things change again. Locks take two paths. You’ve got the very effective and costly locks, machined out of solid blocks of metal or cheap locks made of thin metal and stamped parts; no match for the average hammer. So, by the late 1800’s that’s the choice. The $100 lock or the 10¢ lock. And then a guy from Milwaukee, a local locksmith, a Russian immigrant by the name of Harry Soref changes all that.
Born on this day, March 2, 1887, Harry Soref was an interesting guy. He was an itinerant locksmith and a prolific inventor. He invented a way to patch tire tubes and a rubber plug gun to fix tubeless tires. At some point he joins the circus. Works with trained bears. Helps setting up circus tents. You know that iconic image of guys driving the stakes that hold up a circus tent? Four guys, all with sledge hammers, taking turns swinging their hammers; 1, 2, 3, 4. Harry Soref's technique. Harry goes on the road doing advance work for Ringling Brothers where he meets another guy; Hungarian immigrant, also living in Wisconsin, also works for a circus, also a trained locksmith. His new friend is Ehrich Weisz, is known as Ehri (rhymes with very). Remember that name.
Anyway, Harry Soref becomes an accomplished locksmith. A locksmithing legend! During World War I he invented a special lock for the US Army to secure tanks and military equipment. After the war he starts a company that sells a set of five master keys that’ll open almost any consumer lock on the market! The cops cry foul but Harry knows the problem isn’t his keys, it’s shoddy locks. So Harry directs his thinking and tinkering toward building a better lock.
He works with stamped layers of hardened steel riveted together to form the lock body and after seven years of revisions, Harry Soref received a patent for the Masterlock padlock.
In the patent application he describes the design as “substantially a metal block of considerable weight and inherent durability, which qualities enable it to successfully resist all ordinary attempts at its destruction.” And extraordinary attempts! Remember that old Superbowl ad? 1974? Tough under fire? They used a 30 caliber high-powered rifle to blow a half inch hole through a standard Masterlock but it still holds, right?
So the Master Key Company becomes Masterlock and Harry's Soref’s fortunes soar. Customers love the product and his workers love Harry Soref. He made Masterlock a great place to work! The plant was clean and brightly painted in pastel colors. No time clocks. He designed ergonometric chairs for each line worker before ergonometrics was a thing.
Harry had a couple of lucky breaks, Like in 1928, during Prohibition, when the Feds needed 147,600 padlocks to secure “the naughty nightclubs of Broadway”. Harry got the contract.
He also benefited from one particular celebrity connection. Remember I mentioned Harry’s circus friend - fellow locksmith from Wisconsin? Well, Ehri Weisz also quit the circus but stayed in show business. Ehri parlayed his fascination with magic and encyclopedic knowledge of locks into an act where he’d escape increasingly complex bindings - handcuffs, leg irons, then handcuffs and leg irons in a locked box, under water, upside down, even buried alive. Ehri invented a magical stage name and Harry Soref’s Masterlocks came to enjoy the very valuable endorsement of a guy who oughta know, his old friend Harry Houdini.