The many permutations of combination locks


Combination locks are one of the foolproof and most convenient of ways in physical securing of objects but while the technical nature of such arising might seem to be wholly contemporary, they in fact date to times of a past as ancient as could be. But given that it is based first and foremost on the mathematical principle of permutation and combination which in itself is a time stood proposition, the eternality of combination looks should not be much reason for surprise.

Also not very unsurprising should be such deductions that trace the combination lock to have been existing in some form since at least a millennium. This route of its occurring finds way through the Islamic Middle East or the Arab World that which also had been the exact premise for permutations to find comprehension, albeit much much earlier. In other accounts of its origin though, the existence would span a greater girth of some 4000 years. The discovery of a Roman period tomb in Athens stands up to this older claim, asserting as an attachment upon a small box and featuring dials instead of keyholes.

For all its locking in of so much relevance through a long course of securing, the present day make of combination locks would only manifest a character stemming from the period of modern history. Even as a sketch of the original Arab lock was made in the 15th century and a combination lock described as well the century later, it wouldn’t be until the 19th century that they would come to be particularly popular. In the couple of hundreds of years since there, there have been considerable development and improvement in this regard such that today there exists many types of combination locks specifically serving diverse intentions in security.

master 1930s lock
Source: OnMilwaukee

From single dial locks to multiple dial ones- the irony asserting as the latter being the simplest kind around. The premise of them also relies on the mechanism of what governs the functioning of padlocks but unlike their precedent the mode of working is more nuanced. It is a physical password then that would emerge as explanation enough for the combination lock, the prospects of which can be stronger or weaker depending upon the intensity of what they need to attend to.


This password-like bearing of combination locks makes them also assume the additional aspect of being ‘versatile’. Even when many of these present as options explored in terms of the numerals, the alphabetic version of their summing is also as much secure an idea. In fact, number locks are derived out of an earlier existence of letter locks that had been fairly common in the 17th century.

The according of security of course would be more or less the same. Irrespective of its occurring in terms of the digits or as words- however unpronounceable they might be, the standards would still express for 3 placed combinations to assert its strength in 1000 different combinations and in 10000 different trials for 4 placed ones, which happen to be the most common counts. Anywhere greater than this count and the prospects of holding your valuables safer and sounder should be assuredly foolproof- at least in the mathematical probability of such happening.

combination word lock
Source: Treasures Antiques & Vintage

But even in the face of such numerousness of the chances, combination locks can give away at times. Whether it be a matter of adeptness as pertaining in thorough professionalism or your luck being such that renders you particularly vulnerable to such hacking, these complete almost solutions to security as what appears on paper aren’t always wholly uncompromisable. It might even be a case of ‘wear and tear’- the greater indentations of activating not being obscure really to particularly experienced hackers of them and combination locks suddenly does not bask in an absolute reputation of its oft- proclaimed worth. Rotary combination locks that rely on a specific movement of the dial to find unlocking too can be undone by such aspects of regular use.


More viable measures of security would need modifications to be made in the entire setup and thus would emerge an ingenious idea in such conceiving that stipulates the exact time and moment in which they can be unlocked. The impracticality of this version can limit thus its usage but in certain cases of what calls for utmost security this indeed would be more logical an option indeed.

But despite the specificness however of what brings upon combination locks this particular identity, the exactness of their functioning would mandate that they find identity as permutation locks instead. And it is permutation as well that lends these types of the lock greater validity in locking even when certain cheaper versions does make use of the basic combination principle itself to somehow make do with.

combination padlock
Source: RS Components

Manufacturing combination locks of a stature that can effectively hold the premise of securing would then occur in certain set specifics. While a greater count of the dials would be one of the most obvious ways and means in making this happen, there can still be other considerations. These would relate to tamper proof mechanisms of making difficult the gauging of the patterns constantly used as the correct combination through employment of tamper switches perhaps.

As locks that are constructed such that the parts of them can be transposed or shifted to arrange them as per requirements of secure locking and ‘certified’ unlocking, combination locks are at once more mechanical and more technical devices. And this is what makes them somewhat fascinating as well, which to be frank exceeds the non fancied but important still identity of locks in general. They still are locks indeed but so innovative is the construct of their mechanism that combination locks serve a variety of similar purposes in both traditional and non traditional arenas of their seeking.