Walter Schlage – The Lock Wizard of Thuringia

Few inventors have made such significant contributions to modern industry as Walter Schlage. Fewer still did so in such a colorful manner. Walter Schlage’s name today is synonymous with Schlage locks, and his experiments changed the way people viewed home and business security.

Walter Schlage was born in Thuringia, Germany in the late 1800’s. As a boy he spent much of his early life scampering around the hotel that his father owned. Schlage worked some, but likely spent more of his time at the hotel listening to the tales of hotel guests. Young Schlage had a penchant for adventure and thrived upon the travel escapades of hotel guests. The wild-at-heart boy, who longed for adventures of his own, showed an aptitude at a very early age for mechanics. His father recognized his son’s drive and ambition and worked hard at saving money to send his son to train at the Carl Zeiss Optical Works School. At a time when many people didn’t finish elementary school, Walter Schlage showed maturity and intellect beyond his years, and was admitted to the school at the age of 14.

Carl Zeiss preceded Walter Schlage by several decades, and was a premier inventor and engineer in his time. Zeiss’ company manufactured precision optical instruments, including microscopes, and many types of optical glass. Zeiss’ training center taught academics, mechanics and engineering to aspiring and promising protégés like Schlage. Walter Schlage graduated at the age of 18 with a special award of merit for his aptitude as an engineer. Upon completion of his studies, he began working in London, England as an instrument maker. His employment didn’t last long however. A keen enough worker, Schlage hadn’t managed to shake the travel adventure bug that bit him while working as a boy in his father’s hotel.

He left his job to venture yet further from his German home, where he had by then become known as “The Lock Wizard of Thuringia” for his adeptness at locksmithing. He crossed the ocean to settle in the United States where he took a position with the Western Electric Company. Still, his love for sightseeing pulled him from his other love for inventing and engineering. Shortly, Schlage left Western Electric to captain a ship and fulfill a lifelong dream to see the world. Eventually Walter Schlage got tired of life on the sea and made his way back to the United States. He returned once again to work for Western Electric. He was an employee by day, and by night he would tinker in his home workshop inventing and tweaking locks. In fact, locks became his life’s passion. His first patent was years ahead of its time and considered somewhat novel, though a marvel of engineering nonetheless.

He created a door lock that could turn lights on and off. His first patent in 1909 inspired an entrepreneurial streak, and Walter Schlage left Western Electric for good in 1920 to begin his own company. Thus the Schlage Lock Company was born. It was as his own boss that he developed the world’s first cylindrical lock, with a push-button in the center. His invention revolutionized the security industry and became the standard other lock companies aspired to. Though other manufacturers have gone on to copy his design, Schlage locks are still the premier brand when it comes to door locks. Walter Schlage passed away in 1946, six years after winning the “Modern Pioneer Award.” This honor is given annually to American inventors who have made significant contributions to modern technology or society. Thanks to a partnership venture in 1927 with business-savvy Charles Kendrick, the Schlage Lock Company has grown and flourished for over sixty years. Several large and prominent business contracts in the Schlage Lock Company’s early years catapulted the Schlage brand name to public prominence. The company continues today to be the most relied upon for home and commercial security. It has become a fitting legend and tribute to “The Lock Wizard of Thuringia,” who became an American lock wizard in his own right.

Mildred K. Pearson

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