The modern history of handcuffs began with W. V. Adams’ invention in 1862. What set this device apart from others before it were the adjustable ratchets.
Before the Handcuffs Emerged
Records show that the earliest handcuffs were the one size fits all type. Basically it consisted of metal rings with locks. It could not be adjusted and this led to two main problems.
It was too tight for people with large wrists. However it was too loose for people with thin wrists. This all in one handcuff or manacle was used widely during the Medieval Age.
While the history of handcuffs may have started in the 1400s or thereabouts, ancient civilizations employed other means for securing prisoners. It’s very likely that rope was one of the earliest devices utilized.
Eventually people learned how to manipulate metal and produced chains. The Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations used chains and shackles on war captives. It’s also very likely that many other civilizations used it.
John Tower’s Handcuffs
Adams’ invention solved the problem of loose fitting handcuffs. His design had notches and a square bow. These notches were used to adjust the locks to fit the wrist. A few years later, Orson Phelps produced another version. Phelps’ version put the ratchet notches in the inner part of the bow.
A pivotal point in the history of handcuffs took place in 1865. Businessman John Tower utilized both Adams and Phelps’ inventions and began his handcuff company. The Tower Company would become one of the most successful pre World War II handcuff companies ever. Their cuff had the notches inside. It also came with a three link chain that joined the two cuffs.
The other cuffs relocated the keyhole to the bottom area. Their cuffs also used three rings rather than chains. Tower got a patent for his design in 1874 as his round bow set the standard for handcuffs.
Five years later Tower filed a patent for the double lock handcuff. In the history of handcuffs, this design was a major breakthrough as it made escaping that much harder.
Further Innovations in Handcuff Design
In 1882, E.D. Bean invented the release button. This allowed the arresting officer to determine when the locking mechanism would be set. This design was improved further by the swing through ratchet. This device meant the cuffs would not lock until they were actually set on the wrists.
Called peerless handcuffs, they were soon adopted by authorities. By the late 1880s, handcuffs were being used in America. The handcuffs were used a few years earlier in the UK.
Handcuffs in the US, UK and many other countries use the same key type to open handcuffs. This was adopted to avoid problems if the keys were to be lost. However, new handcuffs are now being introduced. Some police officers also use leg irons for other criminals. Thumb cuffs are also used widely.
While the history of handcuffs showed that the basic design was implemented early, new versions are being devised. The improvements are meant to make escape more difficult.