Wednesday, March 16, 2005
What’s a locksmith?
I am a big fan of Sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury’s story, "Fahrenheit 451". He took me to see the future, a future where firemen didn’t put out fires; instead, they burned books. A little boy standing with his father pointed to a fire truck going down the road, “Oh look, there’s going to be a fire!” The houses all had to be made of non-flammable material and the older houses were condemned; their owners forced into the newer structures.
The locksmith industry is very similar to that story. I started out in the 70’s learning how locks were put together so that I could figure out how to defeat them; picking them, impressioning a key to take the place of one that may have been lost or taking them apart to change the combination so that an old existing key would no longer operate that lock. Over the years my skills improved, as did the manner in which locks worked. I felt confident that my abilities as a locksmith would match up with my competitors. Not to be boastful, I had acquired a sense of pride that I was a fairly good locksmith.
At some point in time the manufacturers of locks began to change from mechanical operations to electronic mechanisms. In some systems the two work side by side, such as the transponder keys in many of today’s automobiles. I not only had to figure out the mechanical combination that would permit the key to turn within the lock cylinder, I also had to match wits with the electronic package that was controlled by the vehicle’s computer. The technology that made the key turn I have been able to understand since it is not so different than earlier generations that sprang from Linus Yale’s creativity, or for that matter, the ancient lock designs of the orient. I use a fancy electronic gizmo that hooks up to the vehicle’s computer and permits me to complete the programming necessary for the vehicle to start; how it does what it does, I have no idea. This I do know, where I used to get $ 35 dollars to fit a key that would make a Ford F-150 work; I now get $ 150 to fit the original plus one duplicate along with the programming. I make a lot more money for very little extra effort. The problem, at least as I see it; I make most of my money off of an electronic system that someone else knows much more about than I do.
This is where I begin to see the future, a future where locksmiths, at least the mechanically proficient tradesmen ( professional, if it makes you feel any better ) that I have become, no longer are needed. I have watched as the electronic industry has taken hold of, to the point of taking over, most of what used to be the locksmith industry. I am not saying this is good or bad, it just is.
The job skills that made it possible for me to make a very decent living are being moved to the museum, the one next door to the dinosaur exhibit. Instead of a tool box that has a Swiss #4 impression file, the locksmith now has a software program or an optical scanner. Where a thorough knowledge of mechanical systems was important, and still is to some extent, the valuable information has gone towards the electronics and computerized end.
I used to think that “sidewinder” keys or Medco high security locks were the future, I was mistaken; those are Jurassic compared to the electronic gadgets out there now. The newest cars on the market have no keys, none at all. They use electronics, entirely electronic gadgetry to disable the opening of the doors and the accomplishment of starting the vehicle’s engine. If I had not seen the future, like the little boy pointing to the fire truck and shouting out in excitement, “Oh look, there’s going to be a fire!”, then this would have troubled me more than it does now. About the only problem for me is that I have no desire to become that electronic wizard who tricks all those electrons into lining up at the “atomic sheer line” and letting some servo unit do its thing. Oh, there are still enough of the old fashioned style locks to keep me in business for a while longer. I’m part of the past now, wondering if Linus Yale and Hank Spicer will let me sit down on the bench to rest my bones when I put away my tool box.
Posted by T. F. Stern at 3:35 PM