A History of Handcuffs

It’s impossible to trace back through history to the very first appearance of handcuff-like restraints. After all, as long as humankind has been around there has been the necessity to restrain some less-than-savory characters. Before metal handcuffs, of course, people used rope and animal hide and presumably any other strong material that would get the job done.

The first recorded mention of handcuffs appears in Virgil’s telling of the myth of Proteus, an ancient Greek shape-shifting god. According to the myth, Proteus possessed the gift of prophecy, and men desired to learn from him. But any time a human would approach and request that Proteus share his knowledge, he would shift his shape and escape. Finally Aristaeus, son of Apollo, particularly motivated by the desire to learn why his bees were dying of disease, learned (and utilized) the secret to preventing Proteus from shape shifting and escaping: handcuffs.

The first metal handcuffs as we may recognize them today came into existence with the Bronze and Iron ages, and were “one size fits all” for centuries. This lack of adjustability according to wrist size posed a serious problem: if a suspect’s wrists were too large then the cuffs were painful or simply wouldn’t close; too small and the detainee could slip right out of them. Finally, in 1862, W.V. Adams patented the first adjustable ratchet design. Orson C. Phelps followed a few years later with a patent that improved upon the original ratchet design, and beginning in 1865, John Tower (of the once industry-dominating Tower Handcuffs) used Adams’ and Phelps’ patents to manufacture what were until World War II the industry standard.

There were still problems to overcome, particularly the ease with which a suspect could shim or otherwise tamper with the lock. In 1879, Tower Handcuffs introduced the first double-locking cuff design, which effectively solved this problem by preventing the handcuffs from being ratcheted tighter, a common tactic used when shimming and otherwise attempting escape from handcuffs.

Handcuffs came closer still to the standard that we see today in 1912, when George Carney invented the first swing cuff. This design was revolutionary, as it made it possible for a law enforcement officer to quickly secure the cuffs with just one hand, greatly improving security and ease of use. The Peerless Handcuff Company, still the largest manufacturer of handcuffs today, began selling these swing cuffs, and with the exception of brand variances and small changes, the design of today’s industry standard has remained much the same. TIHK works on most Peerless-style cuffs, and has been reported to work on many other brands as well!