Safes and vaults, in one form or another, have been around for millennia. So long as man has owned significant possessions worth protecting he has often innovated a clever way to do so. In centuries past both theft and fire proved worthy adversaries in the struggle for safeguarding both documents and valuables. How much of history could have been saved if the library of Alexandria had the fireproofing techniques we know today? Here we’ll look at the history and development of safes and vaults as well as notable innovations that have helped to make them what they are today.
While there’s not really a clear consensus on the first people to effectively safeguard their valuables there are some interesting and notable attempts made throughout history. The Egyptians buried valuables and papyrus scrolls in elaborate underground vaults and are also credited with designing a primitive form of the pin and tumbler lock system that is so common today. The ancient Assyrians are known to have buried multiple copies of the same documents in different locations to prevent loss should one location be compromised by theft or fire. Ancient Greeks would carve documents in ivory slabs to prevent destruction by fire. Even Julius Caesar is credited with storing documents in iron boxes in a futile attempt to prevent fire damage. Safes in a similar form to that which we know today might best be credited to sailor merchants in the 15th century that designed ‘treasure chests’ made of oak with banded steel. These would often utilize a skeleton key lock and a sturdy build design to deter against theft. However, these chests could not safeguard against fire. Fireproof safes emerged in the early 19th century to the sometimes disputed credit of Jesse Delano in 1826 who patented a design characterized by a wooden foundation coated in equal parts of clay, lime, plumbago and mica. From there the innovation of fireproof safes really took off and quickly developed more elaborate and effective techniques for fireproofing. In 1833 C. J. Gayler patented a ‘double chest’ variation of the fireproof safe that would fill the void between two nested safes with fire resistant material. This concept is quite similar to the methods used by modern fire resistant safes. Ultimately, in 1850 one of the most effective methods for fireproofing safes was discovered and is still something that is commonly used today. Hydrated plaster of paris was used by Silas C. Herring in a competition in 1851 in which his designed safe reportedly lay red hot in a fire for 40 hours with the contents emerging undamaged. Since then we have made notable innovations in the field of fireproofing but many safe manufacturers still return to hydrated plaster of paris as a cheap and effective method for fireproofing.