4th Generation Locksmith
M. Leonard Singer came from a family of locksmiths. His great-great grandfather was official court locksmith to Emperor Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
“While most children were out playing, I was expected at age 12 to go to the shop [in Jersey City, NJ] and learn the craft,” Leonard said. Later, he served an apprenticeship of 6 years at Central Lock and Hardware in New York City and Dependable Lock and Key in Union City, NJ. To work his way through college, he operated his own lock and key shop in Journal Square, Jersey City, where he enjoyed daily conversations with one of the very early chiropractors, Dr. Julius I. Bitterman, the man who would one day become his father-in-law.
Leonard worked hard at his craft, but he listened to his mother’s gentle urging to excel in school, too. In addition to working full time in the shop, he completed high school, went on to Columbia University, New York University, and the Newark College of Engineering (now NJIT), taking night courses and completing his degree work. It was during the depression of the 1930s, and it was hard. “Many’s the time I had to skip dinner because I didn’t have the money for it,” he said.
The Lot of a Locksmith
The impact of this heavy schedule during the depression years of the 1930s made Leonard bitter about the lot of a locksmith. It was low pay for a high skill, long hours for barely a living wage. Leonard’s father, Harry, was a charter member of the New Jersey Master Locksmith Association and occasionally took his son to meetings. Leonard realized that other locksmiths faced similar problems. As a man of ideas and action and a positive outlook, he was inspired to seek ways to achieve higher standards of living for those who practiced the craft. He set out to elevate it to the level of a profession.
Birth of the Locksmith Ledger
Leonard specialized in marketing and journalism in college and was also a highly competent machinist. He combined his training, job experiences, and natural talents to create the Locksmith Ledger in 1939. He and his fiancée, Louise Bitterman, a gifted teacher with superb language and editing skills, pasted up the galley proofs of the magazine from articles, photos, and illustrations laid out all over the floor of his parents’ living room.
“I started the Locksmith Ledger during the depression in 1939, and it was very, very difficult,” Leonard said. “I almost quit, but Harold Hoffman of the H. Hoffman Co. came in from Chicago, sat me down, and said I must persevere.” Mr. Hoffman told him that the Ledger was the one thing that would bind locksmiths together by breaking down their isolation from each other. Inspired by that encouragement, Leonard decided to press on.
World War II Intervenes
Leonard and Louise married in 1940. Publication of the Ledger was interrupted three years later when Leonard enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He could have remained deferred from the draft because he worked at a naval yard, which was part of the war industry, and Sondra was an infant, but Leonard, a man of firm convictions and deep patriotism, would not ask others to risk their lives for his family if he would not do so as well. He wrote his subscribers and told them that he would resume publication after the war and that their subscriptions would be honored. Many were skeptical and believed that they’d never see their subscription money or the Locksmith Ledger again. They were indeed surprised when, in 1945, Leonard, true to his word, started publication again as soon as he returned home and honored all subscriptions. “What a dedicated, honest person he turned out to be,” said Joe Mangione of Troy, New York two decades later when he told that story.
Letter of Commendation
The Navy assigned him on a temporary basis to the Naval Air Technical Training Center in the Great Lakes to serve as part of a team writing technical manuals. He received a letter of commendation for his part in creating a manual on surreptitious entry.
Associations and Affiliations
Leonard often stayed in the background, but he was a prime mover in the establishment of ALOA and other locksmith associations that he helped form. As a charter member of ALOA, he was proud to hold ID card #12. The double digit IDs signified the founders. After #12, the numbers jumped to 100 and went on from there.
Leonard was a past president of the Keys Square Club (the Masonic fraternity of locksmiths) and was the first honorary member of the Master Locksmiths Association of Greater New York. He designed the original cross keys emblem for ALOA and the key-and-skyline crest for the New York Locksmiths Association.
Designs and Patents
He developed and patented a number of locking devices, including the Bolen Typewriter and Business Machine Lock, a spacing micrometer, and a quick keyway-changing system.
First Locksmith Convention
In 1959, Leonard coordinated the first locksmith convention, which was held at the Empire Hotel in New York City. He believed that education, the sharing of knowledge, and professional conduct would be the prime activators toward the growth of the profession. Thirteen exhibitors were joined by 2,000 visitors and, for the first time, the concept of technical classes, lectures, and workshops was introduced to the craft as part of the convention formula.
Locksmithing Institute and Publications
In addition to founding, editing, and publishing the Locksmith Ledger, Leonard developed and wrote the first complete locksmithing course for the Locksmithing Institute and served as its president until 1976. He authored Master Key Systems, How to Make Keys by Impression, How to Open Locks without Keys or Picks, The ABC’s of Locksmithing, and many, many more books.
In conjunction with Harry Miller and James Taylor, Leonard was the writing member of the team that created the Lockmasters safe manipulation course.
Teaching and Speaking Engagements
A certified and licensed teacher, in 1946 Leonard taught at the Center School of Locksmithing in New York City. He later taught technical article writing at Long Island University and gave talks all over the world.
Honors and Awards
In addition to recognition for his work with Naval Intelligence, Leonard received commendations from law enforcement agencies for his efforts in fighting crime and as a court expert in breaking-and-entering cases. He was a recipient of the prestigious Philadelphia Award, which holds the distinction of being the industry’s highest achievement award. He was listed in the 4th Edition of Who’s Who in the East, and he wrote “The History of Locks” for an edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. One of his most quoted pieces was “The Creed of the Locksmith,” which was a tribute to the honesty, integrity, art, and skill required of anyone who calls himself a locksmith:
A Locksmith always remembers his public trust.
With him rests the security of property and fortune. As a public guardian he shuns the dishonest, the wicked and the avarisious. For thousands of years he and his predecessors have placed trust and honor above temptation. His honesty is incorruptable. his allies are the custodians of law and order. He is an artist at his trade and the symbol of skill and integrity to the world.
Leonard was labelled the “Architect of the Locksmithing Industry” because he was the planner, the builder, and the overseer who brought all the elements together to make locksmithing a proud and profitable profession.
Birth of the Lock Museum of America
Leonard and his wife, Louise, a major participant in her husband’s endeavors, were charter members of the Lock Museum of America. He encouraged his numerous contacts throughout the locksmithing world to support the effort to create, in the birthplace of the American lock and key industry, a national museum dedicated to locksmithing. Leonard served on the board of directors from the museum’s inception to his death in 1987. Louise was asked to succeed him and served on the Board until the time of her passing in 2008. The reins were then passed to Leonard’s younger daughter, Betty, who now serves on the Museum’s board.
Remembering Early 20th Century Entrepreneurs in the Industry
Leonard was often overly modest about his own achievements, but he frequently praised many of his friends who, during their lifetimes, gave much creative input to the industry. The list included Henry Gussman, inventor of the key duplicating machine; Sam Segal, inventor of the jimmy-proof deadlock; Henry Keil, owner of the Keil Lock Co.; Harry Soref, inventor of the Master laminated padlock; E.D. Reed, world famous publisher of code books; Morris Falk, founder of the Independent Lock Company; Ted Johnstone of the Security Division of General Motors; Barney Zion, known in his time as the “locksmith’s locksmith”; Ely Epstein, inventor of the lock pick gun; Jesse Baxter, developer of Baxter Key Codes; Charles Courtney, the most publicized locksmith of the 1920s and 1930s; and Raymond Gray, founder of the Illinois Lock Company.
Both Sondra and Betty grew up as part of the industry and enjoyed meeting locksmiths from all over the world when they staffed ALOA convention booths to promote the Locksmith Ledger. They worked after school in the Ledger offices and learned the publishing and technical writing business from the ground up. Sondra went on to become an international correspondent, radio producer, writer, editor, and poet. Betty published an inter- nationally circulated newsletter, became a consultant in marketing for small businesses, has written and published two nonfiction books, and has honored the family’s locksmithing legacy with her active participation on the Museum’s board.
On Display at the Museum
Collections of locks and other memorabilia from both Leonard Singer and his father, Harry, are on display at the Museum. After Leonard’s death in 1987, the New York Locksmiths Association presented the Museum with a portrait of him, which hangs in the Board Room as a tribute to the man who is known as “The Architect of an Industry.”