The History of Automatic Doors

Historians believe the first automatic doors were invented by a Greek mathematician and engineer, Heron of Alexandria who was born in around 10 AD. He wrote two books known as the Pneumatica to describe his theories and experiments.

Published in 1903 by the publishing house Teubner, a comprehensive edition of his works talks about a mechanism that was employed to open a temple’s doors. Powered by heat from a fire, this caused atmospheric pressure to build up in a brass vessel.

Water-Powered Doors

This pumped water into adjacent holding containers that acted as weights, enabling a series of ropes and pulleys to open the temple’s doors when people were arriving for prayer. He later implemented a similar application to open the City gates.

Heron’s automatic doors were among more than 80 mechanical appliances that he designed to work by water pressure, steam or air.

A foot sensor-activated automatic door was constructed in China in the 17th century, according to historian Joseph Needham in his 1986 book, Science and Civilization in China. Emperor Yang of Sui, who reigned from 604–618 had it installed for the royal library.

In 1910, author HG Wells refers to an automatic door in his book, When the Sleeper Wakes. It described how two men walked up to an “apparently solid wall” that “rolled up with a snap” to allow them access before it closed again.

First Modern Automatic Doors

Despite these early references, it wasn’t until 1954 that Americans Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt were credited with the invention of the first automatic doors as we know them today – after studying the difficulties faced by people trying to use swing doors in windy Corpus Christi, Texas. Using a mat actuator, the first automatic door was installed there in 1960. The first commercial automatic sliding doors appeared on the market the same year, establishing a new industry.

Throughout the 1960s, automatic sliding doors became progressively more common. Pneumatic-powered and with an emergency break-out feature and electric floor mat activation, their application became increasingly widespread in commercial buildings such as in large banks, hotels and various public buildings.

Motion Detectors

In the 1970s, motion detectors were invented to activate sliding doors, the concept of low-energy swing doors was introduced and the first access doors for disabled people were initiated. To coincide with the growth of the industry, the Builders’ Hardware Manufacturing Association was formed and the American National Standards Institute wrote the first standard for power-operated doors, ANSI A15610.

In the 1980s, active infrared presence sensors were introduced for safety reasons, while automatic revolving doors were launched and motion detector activation became an industry standard for sliding doors.

The first automatic folding doors were invented in the 1990s, when the automatic door industry became a global force. Active infrared sensors were soon used on all types of automatic doors.

Today, automatic doors can be found in just about every commercial building; opening as if by magic as we approach and closing efficiently behind us. Triggered by optic or motion sensors, this ensures that they open as soon as we approach them.