This Is the Weird Reason Revolving Doors Were Invented

If you've ever been flummoxed by a revolving door — who goes in first? Do we go together, or one at a time? How do you keep your rolling suitcase from getting caught? — you have one person to thank: a man by the name of Theophilus van Kannel. Legend has it he invented the device to keep from having to hold open doors for women. His goal seems to have backfired, but his innovation still offers important benefits to this day.

After You? No, After Me

Theophilus van Kannel was born in Pennsylvania in 1841. Though his past is mysterious, it is believed that van Kannel invented the revolutionary door in order to avoid having to hold doors for women. According to the podcast 99% Invisible, "There was nothing he despised more than trying to walk in or out of a building and locking horns with other men in a game of 'oh you first, I insist.'"

He patented his "storm-door structure" in 1888, which included weather stripping to prevent energy loss. The first revolving door was installed at a Times Square restaurant called Rectors in 1889. This invention solved numerous problems that traditional doors couldn't answer. They help regulate temperature and air pressure, thereby saving up to 30 percent of energy costs. An MIT study also found that they exchange eight times less air than traditional doors.

Patent drawing by Theophilus Van Kannel for a "Storm-Door Structure", 1888.

Sorry, Theo

Unfortunately, the world we live in is far off from that straightforward, chivalry-free society van Kammel had dreamed of. When it comes to society, revolving doors created more problems than they solved. For one thing, nobody uses them. That same MIT study found that only 20 to 30 percent of people opt to use revolving doors, while the rest head for the traditional doors.

Revolving doors have also been an etiquette nightmare. Sure, men don't have to hold the door for women, now. But should they let women go first? RealSimple asked this question, and about half of readers said yes. That's at the level of chance — not a good sign for the next time you're facing off with a stranger at a revolving door. But according to Park Hyatt Chicago doorman Joe Snyder, ladies first is the wrong approach. Because the first person to go through has to do most of the pushing, Snyder says the man should go first. "A gentleman should always go first and assist the woman through the revolving door, and I observe this on a daily basis," he told RealSimple. Sorry, Theo — when you fix one problem, you often just create more.

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Love inventions? Check out "Mistakes That Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be" by Charlotte Foltz Jones and illustrated by John O'Brien. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer April 29, 2017

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