A key finding goes missing

In school, I was taught that engineering was progress-based: as ideas arose that were superior to those in use — the locomotive, the cotton gin, the automobile, the better mousetrap — they would replace the older ideas, in a satisfying parade of continual refinement.

Of course, this isn’t always the case, especially when the situation is complicated by economics or marketing. A classic example of this is the VHS videotape standard clobbering Betamax, a prior and technically superior standard, because consumers were more interested in maximizing unattended recording time than video quality. Its demise was hastened by the fact that content producers resisted the burden of offering their products in redundant formats just to satisfy a shrinking number of diehards.

I recently had another opportunity to bemoan this principle when I was shopping for a replacement key wallet.

Key wallets, very popular in the ’60s and ’70s, seem to have fallen out of currency. Back then, Keytainer even offered a trendy line of hard-case key wallets, which became unpopular as commercial keys of unusual lengths began to proliferate.

People now seem to manage their keys by clipping them on their belts or backpacks with carabiners, or using a rigid case where the keys are stacked like the blades of a folding knife, or by simply carrying them on a ring in their pockets.

I’ve ruined a lot of pockets over the decades carrying keys in them — especially since the advent of those extra-long, hydrocephalic “security keys” required by many contemporary vehicles — and pockets simply aren’t easy to repair and are practically impossible to replace. During the pre-carabiner ’70s, I went the belt route with one of those spring-loaded cable-reel keychains, eventually abrading holes through all my pants at my belt line. Finally, I settled on the leather key wallet as the best compromise between convenience and protection.

Practically every key wallet you find on the market today uses the ball-and-slot mechanism in this photo, pretty much unchanged since it was patented in 1921:

Common key wallet mechanism

This mechanism consistently suffers from two problems.

First, the two-part swivel link mechanism seems almost deliberately designed to promote constant and frustrating tangling among the hooks.

Second, the backplate, made of plated brass, is relatively soft metal. Pressure from your pocket and/or an excess of enclosed keys easily bows the plate forward or backwards. When it bows forward, closing the slots, your key hooks jam (usually in their tangled configuration). Worse, when it bows backwards, opening one or more slots, key hooks can completely detach, and you can easily lose a key without even realizing it. (And since the hook is gonzo with it, you’re now in the market for a whole new wallet.)

At some point in the ’80s, I encountered a completely different concept in a key wallet mechanism, one that greatly appealed to my engineering sensibilities. I used the associated wallet until the cowhide deformed and shredded into uselessness. Here is a photo of the hardware:

Superior key hook mechanismEvery key is attached to a swivel block that rotates in one dimension only — into or out of the case. The hook itself is a rigid wire that rotates around its own axis, but cannot flop to either side. Combined, these two mechanisms allow the keys to be deployed from the case and turned in a lock, but absolutely prevent them from tangling inside the case.

Furthermore, since its integrity is mechanically positive and not dependent on cut-out slots, the keys are securely locked against loss. Keys can be easily removed temporarily with a one-handed action similar to the operation of a hypodermic needle, depressing the hook while pulling back on the spring-loaded collar, which disengages the right-angled retaining end from the round port. Since this operation requires a self-opposing motion, hooks will never detach simply by tugging on the keys.

This mechanism is elegant, functional, and clearly far superior to the more common link and slot mechanism.

It’s also entirely unavailable today, despite my most ardent searches.

The wallet in the photo was made by Rolfs, a defunct company. While there are websites specializing in antiques from defunct product lines — often pieces that were never used — most of the Rolfs key wallets offered use the common hardware, while the ones with the desired hardware have been heavily used and in even worse shape than my own piece.

It depresses me that a product improvement like this would die out. It depends solely on the availability of a metallic component similar to a jewelry finding, one that one would think should be available independent of a manufacturer of fashion accessories, same as you can buy zippers or buttons without buying an entire article of clothing. Even if demand is not large enough for a major firm to reintroduce a product that uses it, there are hundreds of boutique and artisan leatherwork shops who would jump at the chance to offer a superior quality mechanism to complement their superior quality materials.

I haven’t been able to find anyone else who knows anything about this mechanism, what happened to it, who might have remaining stocks of it, or where it might be available. I can only hope that someone knowledgable will someday find this posting via a search engine and get in contact to enlighten me.

Afterword: A leather artisan who read this offered to create a new key wallet for me around my existing hardware if I could send it to him. Since the hardware is in fine mechanical shape and it’s only the leather parts that made the original wallet unserviceable, that’s a particularly attractive option.

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