Now They're Talking!

Smart locks move from stand-alone to network communication.

In the early 1970s two technologies came together that forged a revolution in door locks. Intel Corporation was looking for applications for its new generation of microprocessors, a quantum leap in solid state technology. Meanwhile, Pitney Bowes Inc. was seeking to license the electronic access technology they had developed to increase security on their postage machines.

The Birth of the Electronic Hotel Lock
Yale Lock and Hardware negotiated a license agreement with Pitney Bowes as the platform for an electronic hotel lock. Using an Intel processor, Yale developed a lock that would read data to a magnetic stripe card on two tracks, one for access and one for programming the lock. This technology allowed hotels to re-combinate guest room locks without having to send a locksmith to the door. When a guest went to his or her room, the card used to unlock the door voided the previous user's card, authorized it for the current guest, and programmed it for the next guest.

The early development was archaic compared to today's computer technology. The first prototype locks were connected to a timeshare computer via acoustical modem. Data came via teletype machine. Later, Yale's prototype lock connected to a circuit board about the size of a flatbed scanner through an "umbilical cord." Finally, Yale packaged the card reader, battery pack and circuit board with the Intel processor into an enclosure that looked remarkably like a commercial mortise lock.

Then, during the "salad days" of computer technology, Intel introduced the 8088 microprocessor, the heart of the desktop computer. The IBM XT was small and affordable, compared to the monster servers that required their own environmentally controlled rooms to process data that fits in today's PDA. The PC would allow front desk personnel to manage the access system while guests checked in, thus making the concept feasible.

Yale launched its revolutionary lock in the late 1970s, though it was not the first to manufacture an electronic hotel lock. A small New York manufacturer, Ellison Co. (not related to Ellison Bronze Co.) sold recombinating hotel locks in the New York metro area in the early 1970s. As is often the case, the first to introduce a new technology is not successful, and Ellison did not survive.

Problems and Upgrades
At first, hotel owners scoffed at the idea of paying money to replace good old, reliable mechanical locks with these new-fangled electronic gadgets. However, when large hotel owners saw the savings they could achieve by replacing nickel silver keys with plastic cards, they warmed up to the idea. Las Vegas casino owners saw a huge benefit in being able to retrieve an event history from a guest's lock. This resolved many disputes about "stolen" valuables. After security reviewed an audit trail retrieved from a complaining guest's room lock, stolen valuables often became "lost" valuables. Ultimately, hotel owners rushed to purchase the cost-saving technology, but Yale found itself surrounded by competitors and withdrew from the hotel lock business. The company returned to the market through acquisition years later.

The concept of a credential reading locks with an event memory soon found its way into the commercial security market. However, commercial access control is quite different from hotel lock security. In commercial buildings, it is seldom necessary to change coding data daily. Conversely, the locks must hold hundreds of users, not just one or two hotel guests and a few service personnel. Advanced access control technology includes assignable time zones and master keying structures by user and location. Entering such complex data for each user through a card or keypad is impractical at best, so manufacturers moved to programming locks at a remote computer and uploading the data through a portable computer or PDA. This concept of networking by walking around (also commonly known as sneaker-net) remains common today.

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