The Evolution of Hotel Keys

The history of hotel keys stretches back nearly as far as civilization itself. While key technology has changed over time, our desire for safety and security remains constant. In our industry, these concerns can guide which hotel a guest will choose.

Below, we’ve outlined this history from ancient times to the latest stage in the evolution of hotel keys: mobile key technology.

Locks & Keys From Ancient Times to the Modern Era
  • 4000 B.C: The Assyrians use wooden locking pins at the Palace of Khorsabad in Assyria to secure personal items belonging to the royal family
  • 2000 B.C: Egypt invents an early form of the pin tumbler, a precursor to locks still in use today
  • 600 B.CAncient Greece uses keys as a motif throughout their art and architecture, also inventing a rudimentary version of the keyhole

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  • 200 A.D: Romans improve the Greek keyhole design by replacing wooden parts with metal ones and adding steel springs to operate the pins
  • 900 A.D: English craftsmen create the first all-metal warded locks using concentric plates, matching notch patterns, and skeleton keys to disengage the bolt
  • 1778: Robert Barron pioneers British Industrial Age lock & key technology with his revolutionary double-acting lever tumbler lock
  • 1784: Joseph Bramah improves Barron’s design with his patented cylindrical key system that used a series of wafers to allow retraction of the bolt
  • 1851: America’s domination of lock & key design begins at the Great Exhibition of 1851 when Alfred C. Hobbs, an American locksmith, wins a cash prize for picking both the Barron and Bramah designs
  • 1861: Using knowledge from his father’s handmade bank lock design, Linus Yale Jr. receives his first patent for the innovative Yale pin tumbler cylinder lock
Hotels Get Their Keys

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the modern hotel era began shortly after Yale’s first patent on his new pin tumbler cylinder lock. Philippe Lesigne, chief concierge of Le Grande Hotel Paris, notes that as far back as 1862, hotel rooms were secured by metal room keys that “were attached to a big key-ring, which was hung on a board at the concierge office.” Those large metal key rings were used to increase hotel security but were also a tremendous inconvenience for guests as they could not leave the property with them.

From Keys To Cards

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the hotel industry enthusiastically embraced lock & key technology as a source for both security and improved guest experience. Hotel door locks operated by metal or plastic punch cards entered the marketplace in this period and became the next development in hotel room security. The 32 holes in the cards provided a possible 4.2 billion key combinations, roughly one for every person on Earth at the time, for completely unique room keys.

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But the key cards had to be disposed of at guest check-out until Tor Sornes created a re-codable plastic card. This re-codable card also had 32 holes, but it could be changed to different combinations for each new guest by inserting a new key template in the lock.


In the 1980s, punch cards gave way to the magstripe cards still used in many hotels today. Originally created for data storage and not for operating door locks, this was the breakthrough technology that also enabled credit and debit cards.

Magstripe cards were a much more secure alternative to punch cards. They were easily deactivated or replaced while also less expensive than traditional keys. Equally important, magstripe cards maintained security without sacrificing guest convenience. In the 1990s, the allure of higher security ratings with magstripe-locks fueled rapid adoption of this technology and lasted into the 2000s.

Read Next: 3 Ways To Cut Hotel Operations Cost With Technology

The weakness of magstripe cards, unfortunately, became apparent when hackers were able to gain access to rooms, transfer loyalty card points, and other types of theft. The promise of increased security from magstripe cards had abruptly ended.

Most U.S. hotels still have magstripe doors locks despite these significant security flaws. Many of these locks are still in service well beyond their typical 20-year lifespan and are failing mechanically and/or technically. And the cards themselves are no better with an average of one in five becoming demagnetized and failing. Hotel guests can become understandably frustrated by having to return to the front desk to address the situation.

Radio Frequency ID

In the 2000s, hotels turned to Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) keycards that contain a small chip and open a lock by contact. This technology solved the demagnetization problem of magstripe cards and was more convenient for both hotels and guests.

RFID technology remains the primary form of upgraded room access today. Added benefits include facilitating cashless vending, entrance to common areas reserved for guests (such as workout facilities or lounge areas), and other features.

Their short read-range makes hacking more difficult because of how close to a guest a hacker would need to be to access any information on the RFID chip (it is only activated when tapped on a reader or NFC device). However, there are still cases of hackers successfully pulling this feat off.

Nonetheless, personal details are not on the chip but often stored on a separately secured system. RFID key technology is designed for scalable security and maintains a wide range of globally trusted countermeasures such as mutual authentication, message authentication, and data encryption.

The Advent And Advantages Of Mobile Key

The drive to increase security and convenience for guests led Starwood Hotels to create mobile keyless entry in 2014 as SPG Keyless. Later that same year, OpenKey was founded to provide the benefits of mobile key on a universal basis to hotels and resorts. Today, the largest stay brands have made implementing mobile key a priority with Hilton launching digital key in their 4,000th hotel in December of 2018.

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The rapid adoption of keyless entry is being driven by the benefits of mobile keys for hotels. Mobile keys allow guests to check-in remotely prior to arrival and receive a secure encrypted key directly on their smartphone. This capability allows guests to skip the front desk check-in process and proceed directly to their room upon arrival – high on the wish list of every tired traveller looking to get to their room as soon as possible. This skip-the-desk capability saves time for both the guest and front desk staff. Research shows that guests so dislike waiting at the front desk, a mere five-minute wait causes average guest satisfaction to drop by 50%. Similar research also indicates that hotels enjoy a seven-point improvement in social media reviews when guests use mobile keys instead of traditional keycards.

Nearly 2/3 of travelers prefer to use their smartphones as their room keys; the time is quickly approaching where mobile keyless entry will become expected and demanded. Almost 50% of guests already view mobile keys as an essential feature and a deciding factor in their hotel selection. With only 16% of hotels currently offering them, there is tremendous promise in the technology for hotels to increase their preference among prospective guests.

Download our eBook: Intro to Mobile Key

On the technical side, mobile keys are delivered over encrypted HTTPS-secured servers as encrypted ‘tokens’ that physically reside on a guest’s mobile device. This level of security truly distinguishes them from magstripe and RFID cards which can still be copied and used to enter a guest room. Sophisticated security measures on the device itself like passcodes and fingerprint or facial scanners add yet another layer of security to make mobile keys the most secure form of room access available for hoteliers and their guests.

A History Driven By Security

History demonstrates that security and technology have worked hand-in-hand since ancient times. OpenKey’s secure, convenient, and scalable mobile key solution is the next evolutionary step in a process that reaches back over 6,000 years. With OpenKey, hoteliers have a cost-effective and highly secure tool to protect their guests while still providing the convenience needed to enhance the ever-important guest experience.

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