Time Locks: A Piece of Watch History

Yale and Towne

From the time currency has been in existence, there’s been a running competition between the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys want to protect it and the bad guys want to steal it, each pushing the other to devise more crafty ways to achieve their objectives. People quickly discovered that stuffing money in a mattress, hiding it in a drawer of even burying it in the backyard wasn’t effective or practical. The best way to protect money and valuables was to lock them up in a vault or safe—and still to this day we employ the same principle. But, no matter how impenetrable a vault or safe, it’s only as good as its lock.

Though the best key locks were highly secure, they required, well, a key, which could be lost. If a banker wanted to change the lock, it was inconvenient and very expensive. The combination lock was a better alternative, enabling a quick change of combination. Thieves who couldn’t easily pick these locks came up with another and much easier plan to get the goods. Kidnap the bank manager and force him at gunpoint to open the safe.

The advent of the time lock eliminated the human element, the weakest link in vault and safe security. A specifically American technology, the time lock revolutionized an industry.  The earliest known functional time lock was constructed by a maker named Francis Pye, which he exhibited for the first time at the Fair of the American Institute at Castle Garden in New York in 1851.  Although details of Pye and his mechanism are scarce, we do know that Pye’s “bank lock with a chronometer attachment” garnered Gold Medal honors.

Pye Time Lock

Although Pye’s award-winning design represented the pinnacle of quality and reliability for its time, it was typical of why bank managers would remain skeptical of the time lock nearly 25 years before embracing this new technology:  Pye’s time lock relied on a single time movement to release the vault door and offered no fail-safe mechanism should that clock mechanism fail.

For a bank manager, being locked out of the bank’s safe and needing to have the safe drilled or cut open could present nearly as great a financial loss as the theft of the safe’s contents.  For all its commitment to state-of-the-art machining, Pye’s time lock could not instill the confidence to be adopted by the industry.  Until time locks could offer a better risk/reward profile, they would remain the stuff of exhibitions.

The first time lock to see significant use in a commercial bank setting was a model developed by Amos Holbrook in 1858.  Unlike nearly every time lock before or since, Holbrook’s time lock was a utilitarian affair, housed in a spartan black case with no ornamentation to speak of.  Even Holbrook’s own name was applied as a simple paper label.

Holbrook’s mechanism, however, was everything the beautiful Pye time lock was not.  With twin movements and a spring-powered bolt, the Holbrook time lock offered strength and redundancy rather than beauty and elegance.

The Holbrook time lock was installed in bank safes in Milford and Holliston, Massachusetts, with the Milford Bank lock operating reliably for at least eight years with no problems according to court documents. The total number of locks made by Holbrook remains unclear, with current estimates ranging from 12 to 30.  What is certain is that Holbrook’s time lock was both at the vanguard of time lock design, offering features that would not become standard for years to come, and effective, reportedly foiling a burglary at a bank in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.


Although Holbrook’s design was effective and reliable, it was too early. Kidnapping-related bank robberies would not become headline news for some time, and the vast majority of bank managers were uninterested in making a significant investment in new technology.

In 1873, John Burge, a physician from Circleville, Ohio, was awarded a Canadian patent for what has become known as the Gothic Time Lock. This design was based on a 1872 prototype designed by Burge and constructed by prominent clockmaker Laporte Hubble, incorporating Hubble’s Marine Clock movement.  The Gothic Time Lock added a second power reserve spring to actively operate the bolt, similar in concept to the function in Holbrook’s time lock, but the bolt in Burge’s Gothic rotated rather than sliding.  Burge curiously did not apply for a patent in the United States, but rather seems to have tried to sell his design instead.

One of the parties that Burge pitched his time lock design to was James Sargent of Sargent & Greenleaf.  Sargent was at the time already widely known throughout the safe and vault industry for his earlier introduction of his Magnetic and Automatic combination lock designs that had quickly become the industry standard. Sargent did not buy Burge’s design and Burge would have to wait until 1875 to sell his design to Yale & Towne Lock Manufacturing Company (S&G’s primary competitor) in connection with the protracted patent litigation between S&G and Yale.


Although S&G had not purchased Burge’s time lock design, James Sargent seems to have seen the value of Burge’s mechanism and the potential of the time lock market overall.  S&G introduced its own time lock design in 1874, the S&G Model 1.

Bearing some common appearance elements to Burge’s Gothic, such as the wagon-wheel style timing cog and rotary bolt, S&G’s Model 1 provided a full solution for managers who had the luxury of designing their vault doors around it. The Model 1 leveraged S&G’s experience integrating control elements into the tumblers of a combination lock, using the time lock to prevent the combination lock from opening rather than blocking the safe’s bolt work directly.

Wagon Wheel Style Timing Cog

The Model 1’s large size, however, limited its market since most safes did not have space to mount such a large case.  To address this untapped market, S&G also introduced their Model 2, a smaller two-movement time lock designed to block a safe bolt independently of any pre-existing key or combination lock.  Both the Models 1 and 2 shared common time movements, although it would not be until the 1889 introduction of the S&G Triple A model that S&G time lock movements became modular and easily interchangeable.

S&G’s primary rival was the Yale & Towne Lock Manufacturing Company.  Eventually the two companies would form a trust, assigning each other interests in their respective patent portfolios and dividing up the country between them in a detailed agreement that effectively did away with competition between the two market leaders.  Although such an agreement in restraint of trade would be a per se violation of antitrust law today, in 1877 this was simply savvy business.  Prior to this agreement, however, the firms initially competed bitterly for the time lock markets, both in court, with numerous patent infringement lawsuits, and at the design table, looking to offer additional features that would attract new banking clients.

Yale’s primary offering was its Pin Dial time lock.  The Pin Dial was technically superior to S&G’s Model 2, offering longer locking periods and the ability to preset a daily hour-by-hour schedule of locking and unlocking by pulling or pushing pins corresponding to the hours of the day.  The Pin Dial was also available with an optional Weekend Attachment that would allow the lock to automatically remain secure over a Saturday and Sunday period, and then resume its hour-by-hour schedule during the work week.

Yale Pin Dial

One of the major themes of the time lock industry prior to 1891 was patent litigation.  Initially S&G and Yale sought to monopolize the industry by barring the other entirely from the market.  Ultimately, these two industry behemoths realized that they could better maximize profits by combining their efforts, dividing the market, and then actively working to stamp out numerous small time lock designers whose businesses often relied on a handful of regional banks.

One common legal tactic was for S&G or Yale to locate a bank currently using a third company’s time lock.  The bank itself would then be sued for using a lock that infringed patents.  Although S&G and Yale had never conclusively established their patent priority, the local banks had little incentive to litigate and would seek to settle the suit, generally agreeing to buy an S&G or Yale lock and turn over the competing company’s lock, which would be destroyed. This accounts for the relative scarcity of certain time locks that are known to have been quite successful at the time they were made.

Such suits sharply crimped demand for competitors’ locks and, despite some of the more prominent small companies’ efforts to reassure potential through financial guarantees against legal judgments, ultimately led to the destruction of numerous small- to medium-sized firms, many with innovative and superior designs.

Holmes Electric -- a superior time lock knocked out by S&G and Yale

This tactic ultimately backfired on S&G and Yale when they decided to take on the third-largest time lock maker, the Consolidated Time Lock Company of Cincinnati, Ohio.  Consolidated was owned by Joseph Hall, a self-made industrialist whose ego dictated that his profile be cast onto each case of his Hall Safe Company’s Premier combination lock.  When Yale (and, tacitly, S&G) sued the Berkshire National Bank for use of a Consolidated time lock, Hall chose to go to the mat on behalf of his client.  Hall intervened in the case as the true party in interest and litigated the action at his own considerable expense.

By this time, Yale had a well-developed history of legal decisions in its favor, and at trial Hall lost.  Hall applied for leave of the court to amend his pleadings, and lost again.  Undaunted, Hall appealed this decision.  Again, Hall lost.  Eventually, Hall applied to the United States Supreme Court to review the case, and when the Supreme Court agreed, all time lock patent cases came to halt since lower courts knew that the Supreme Court would not accept a mundane patent case unless it thought there was the chance of significant error.

Hall, however, did not survive to see his case heard. Hall died in 1889 with his Consolidated Time Lock Company’s fate still hanging in the legal balance.  The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Hall, overturning much of the law underlying S&G and Yale’s dominance.  But for many small manufacturers, the decision came too late.  Today, examples of many beautiful, innovative time locks are rarer than they might have been due to S&G and Yale’s efforts to eliminate competition.

Hall Plate

Interestingly, for all the legal animosity between time lock makers, much of the internal structure of their competing models was surprisingly similar.  Aside from S&G, which manufactured all their time locks — including their own time movements — at their plant in Rochester, New York, many of the time locks were based on time movements constructed by the E. Howard Watch Company.  Some smaller firms simply patented their designs and had the entire time lock — case, bolt, and timing elements — constructed by E. Howard to their specifications.

Although the criteria of any quality time movement are accuracy and reliability, time locks required the additional elements of strength to actuate the required release mechanism and durability to shocks from the heavy safe door and bags of coins. Certain early movements were commissioned by time lock designers from clock makers such as Seth Thomas but often these movements were simply not up to the task.  E. Howard, however, was producing time movements of the requisite quality from the mid-1800s.  In fact, although we can only speculate, the style of movement used in the Pye time lock bears striking similarity to movements that were then being produced by Howard & David, a predecessor to E. Howard.

E. Howard’s movements and related mechanisms made their commercial time lock debut in Yale’s Pin Dial, but would eventually be found in nearly every time lock other than S&G.  For its part, S&G did not outsource its movement production, choosing instead to manufacture its own movements at its Rochester, New York, factory until well into the 20th century.

E. Howard Movements

Among the most notable aspects of time lock manufacture was the level of artistry, craftsmanship and esthetic detail that designers put into their work despite knowing that few would ever see the time locks in person.  In keeping with bank lock tradition, many manufacturers applied a layer of scarlet paint to the inside of the case to identify their most prestigious lock.  However, some makers included distinctive decorations that often became synonymous with the makers themselves.

S&G designs, aside from their five-spoke timing sprockets, were known for the crystalized surface design on the bronze cases and front plates of the time movements.  In some of the earliest models, this was augmented with a stylized vine-and-leaf motif engraved into the surface.

Vine and Leaf Motif

Yale, Consolidated and other makers often included machined patterns on the surfaces of their cases and movement plates.  Consolidated additionally produced a number of time locks with unique folk art-style needle engravings on the outside of the cases, with themes such as mid-west wild life and people fishing.

But for all the efforts of the major maker to offer pleasing designs, perhaps the most impressive decoration was applied by the New Britain Bank Lock Co. on their Pillard line of time locks.  The Pillard time lock came in three models and saw significant success, selling more than 170 locks beginning in 1875, before being cut short by a patent lawsuit by Yale. Aside from its technical brilliance, the Pillard time lock featured a uniquely elaborate scroll engraving similar to that found on the best shotguns offered by Parker Bros. during that period.  Although we can only speculate today, the proximity of the two manufacturers (New Britain is less than 10 miles north of Parker’s Merriden, Conn. site) suggests that the same craftsmen may have worked on both.


However, not all aspects of the time locks were hidden from view.  Since the primary purpose of the time lock was to deter would-be thieves from pressuring bank personnel to open a safe, making the presence of the time lock known was critical.

As a result, certain time lock manufacturers offered ornate plaques that were affixed to safes and vaults advertising the use of their time locks.  These advertising plaques were often cast in bronze or steel, like the time lock cases themselves, and included machining or engraving — sometimes quite intricate and detailed.

With the advent of increasingly secure vaults, true high-security combination locks, and then reliable time locks inside the vaults with clear notices to all, would-be bank robbers of the late nineteenth century soon found themselves with few minimally confrontational options.  The most determined criminals would realize that they needed to command access to the vaults during business hours and give rise to the armed daylight bank robberies that have become synonymous with the western frontier.


Bird Plate Engraving

Time locks still play an important role anywhere that vaults safeguard valuables.  Today, this is most commonly a bank’s vault for safe deposit boxes, but corporate and government safes that store sensitive documents and data are also venues where the time lock plays a role.  Although post-war designs have incorporated electronics, the simple three-movement time lock with modular mechanisms remains one of the most reliable solutions well over a century after its debut.

This article wouldn’t have been possible without the great assistance of David Erroll and his father, John Erroll. They wrote the definitive and only book on Time Locks, entitled American Genius: Nineteenth Century Bank Locks and Time Locks. I highly recommend this book; it’s a fascinating read.

Images of the Pye and Holbrook time locks are presented here by the kind permission of the Mossman Lock Collection of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York.  The General Society, founded in 1785, maintains one of the oldest independent libraries and operates a tuition-free school for those in the building trades.  John Malcolm Mossman was among the foremost figures in the safe and vault industry prior to the turn of the last century, and was an active member of the General Society from 1874.  In 1903, Mossman presented his lock collection to the General Society, along with a generous endowment for its maintenance and exhibition.  Today, the General Society’s Museum Committee oversees the General Society’s collections, including the Mossman Lock Collection. In keeping with John Mossman’s wishes, the General Society makes the Mossman Lock Collection available for public viewing and research by appointment.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/dorothy.b.hoffman Dorothy B. Hoffman

    I enjoyed reading your article, Thanks Meehna.