Article: From the Collections--Lock It or Lose It--the Kryptonite Bike Lock Story :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Alison Oswald, Lemelson Center Archivist
Kryptonite lock advertisement, 1983. From the Kryptonite Lock Company Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

If you're a bike rider, especially a bike commuter like I am, you know the value of a good bike lock. There's nothing worse than returning to find your bike cannibalized for parts or stolen outright. I have had both happen. Before the U-shaped bike lock hit the market in the early 1970s, most bike owners depended on cumbersome chains with padlocks that were easy prey for thieves wielding bolt cutters. But in 1972, Stanley Kaplan and Michael Zane changed the face of bicycle security with the Kryptonite lock.

Stanley Kaplan was a bike mechanic in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he designed and built the first Kryptonite lock, which resembled a horseshoe made of iron (U.S. Patent 3,800,570). Michael Zane contacted Kaplan after reading a newspaper article about him in 1971 and they became partners, forming SK Associates that same year. Kaplan, however, was not as interested as Zane in the business or marketing aspects of promoting the lock, so they parted ways; Zane bought the lock idea and the company name, Kryptonite, from Kaplan, and founded the Kryptonite Bike Lock (KBL) Corporation in 1972. Aided by the metal manufacturing experience of his father Ernest Zane, Michael began to produce and market the locks amid a rapidly growing bicycle industry. In its first year, the company sold approximately 50 locks and Kryptonite began "crime prevention" activities targeted at college campuses across the United States. In 1974, Zane added his brother Peter to the growing company.

The escalating problem of bicycle theft fueled Zane's work. In 1977, Kryptonite upgraded its original U-lock (U.S. Patent 3,924,426) from a 1.5-inch-wide piece of rustproof stainless steel with a rubber coating to the K-4 U-lock. The new lock was made of tubular hardened steel and introduced a "bent foot" design at the base of one end of the U, or shackle (U.S. Patent 4,155,231), that fit into the crosspiece and made the secured lock more difficult to remove. By 1978, KBL had adapted the K-4 lock for motorcycles. In 1984, the K-4 was added to the permanent design collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Michael Zane. From the Kryptonite Lock Company Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

In the late 1980s, the company responded to the rising popularity of mountain bikes with the ATB lock that accommodated the bikes' wider tubes with fatter shackles. Innovations of the 1990s included the Evolution 2000(tm) lock series that placed the lock mechanism at the center, rather than at the end, of the U; a steering-wheel lock; and the Ball & Chain(tm) snowboard lock. These products kept the company fresh and on top of its inventive game. With expansion into new markets and rising sales, larger companies increasingly became interested in Kryptonite. In 2001, Ingersoll-Rand, a leading industrial firm, bought the company.

Michael Zane's "Place of Invention"

Cambridge, Boston, Canton, Dorchester, Brookline, and Martha's Vineyard are just a few of the places that contributed to Kryptonite's development. Michael Zane's inventive work took him across the metropolitan Boston area. His early roots lie in his father's sheet-metal and lighting company, the Zane Manufacturing Company of 20 East Concord Street in Boston. Working alongside his father, Michael toiled away on his passion--bicycle locks.

Though Zane's "place of invention" had strong roots in Boston, when you delve a bit deeper you realize there are two distinct and less obvious places that were essential to his success--his Volkswagen van and the streets of New York City. In order to expand his newly founded business, Zane hit the open road. Out of his VW van he managed his sales and marketing efforts as he crisscrossed the country establishing relationships with bicycle dealers, one dealer at a time. This mobile place of ideas and innovation ultimately took him to the streets of Manhattan where he tested his products. 

In 1972, eager to demonstrate the Kryptonite bike lock's reliability, Zane collaborated with the Second Avenue Bicycle Shop and locked a bike to a parking meter on the Lower East Side of New York for a month to test the New York City law of bike theft: there is no lock that can't be broken. In a July 1988 Inc. Magazine article, Zane said of this experiment, "New York is R&D. There's no lab where we could simulate the possibilities as well. We figure New York is 10 years ahead of the rest of the world."  [1]

Michael Zane at work in the early 1970s. From the Kryptonite Lock Company Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

New York as a place in Zane's bike lock development is significant. He identified an important geographic location for marketing and selling his lock and he set out to use the city as a laboratory--more than once. In 1994 he again returned to the fertile testing grounds of New York to prove that the Kryptonite New York Lock could last 48 hours and more, locking a bike first in the East Village, then in Soho, and ultimately near Lincoln Center. Zane said, "This real life, street testing is proof positive that the New York Lock is tough enough for the streets of New York ... or anywhere else in the world." [2] By learning from bike thieves, Zane was able to design better locks. 

The Kryptonite Lock Company Records, 1972-2001, document a wide spectrum of activities engaged in by the company. The records comprise audiovisual materials, correspondence, design drawings, photographs, testing records, patent information, sales reports, product information, advertisements, clippings, periodicals, legal documents, and research files. The strength of the collection resides in the marketing and sales documents. They tell a remarkable story of a small family business that became an internationally recognized brand name. The collection also richly documents competition and innovation in the bicycle and motorcycle lock industry, through sales representative trip reports, product research and development records, and the research files on other companies. To learn more about the Kryptonite Bike Lock story, see the collection finding aid on our website.


[1] Bruce G. Posner, "Locked Out," Inc. Magazine 10, no. 7 (July 1988): 18.
[2] "48 Hours in NYC. Zane, McDaid Meet Post Challenge," New York Crimes (in-house publication of Kryptonite Corporation) 1, no. 1 (September 1994): 1.

From Prototype, October 2010

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