The Man Behind the Revolving Door: Theophilus Van Kannel

Revolving doors are a familiar sight at the entrance to commercial premises all over the world today. The American inventor, Theophilus Van Kannel, is credited with having invented them in the 19th century. Although the revolving door has many practical benefits, apparently, he came up with the idea for a very odd reason!

The eccentric inventor lived during an era when following etiquette was the order of the day. It was claimed he grew tired of the chivalrous act of holdings doors open for the ladies. He decided to come up with an invention that meant everyone could pass through doors with ease in public buildings.

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Unlike traditional doors, revolving doors enabled pedestrians to go in and out of buildings with the merest touch, removing the need to open the door and stand back for others to pass through.

Van Kannel’s invention certainly changed the way people perceived the humble door – but if he invented the revolving door so he didn’t have to stand back to let ladies through first, his plan backfired.

Soon after public buildings started installing the new doors, a debate ensued about whether it was polite for men to enter a revolving door first if ladies were waiting at the other side! Subsequently, it was suggested the man should push it into motion for the women to enter without exerting themselves.

Van Kannel’s early years

Van Kannel’s rebellion against etiquette began in his youth when he refused to accept that men must always open the door for women. He believed they were quite capable of opening a door themselves. His mother chastised him for being rude, but he refused to heed her warnings.

Finally, when he was 13, it was said Van Kannel’s mother lost patience with his bad attitude. She was hosting a gathering of female friends in the drawing room of their home and her son displayed his usual disregard for manners. She snapped and smacked him in front of everyone – a terrible embarrassment for a teenager. Far from turning him into the “gentleman” society required, he built up even more resentment to behaving in a chivalrous manner towards women.

When he grew up and married Abigail Van Kannel, she expected him to behave in a polite manner towards her – including opening the door of their apartment to let her pass through first. She told him, “Manners are the measure of a man,” as this was the way she had been brought up. His marriage reportedly became a battle of wills, as the headstrong Abigail attempted to mould her husband into the type of man she thought he should be.

According to one biographer, at some time in 1885, Van Kannel told his wife, “You’re a grown woman and can locomote perfectly well on your own,” before storming out of the house. When he returned sometime later, he found his wife sitting in the same room where he had left her, in a show of defiance because he had refused to open the door for her!

Van Kannel was as stubborn as his spouse. This was why he devoted his time to finding a way of bypassing the chivalry rules of the day. Three years later, after reportedly spending £8,200 on trying to invent a new type of door, his dedication finally paid off.

When were revolving doors invented?

Regardless of the legend of why Van Kannel invented revolving doors, he did business owners a great service. However, records show a German inventor was developing his own version of revolving doors in 1881 – seven years before Van Kannel was granted a US Patent for his creation.

The information on inventor Mr H Bockhacker, of Berlin, is incredibly sparse. History books show that H Bockhacker was granted German Patent number 18349 on 22nd December 1881 for his invention of a “thür ohne luftzug” – translated as a “door without draft of air”.

A number of German door histories mention Bockhacker, but little is known about him, other than his invention didn’t catch on and apparently never went into production.

Most historians recognise Van Kannel, of Philadelphia, as being the true inventor of revolving doors. In 1888, he was granted US Patent number 387,571 for his “storm-door structure”. The 47-year-old was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1841. He didn’t appear to have invented anything remarkable until his patent was granted for his revolutionary door on 7th August 1888.

The first revolving door in the world was installed in 1899 at Rector’s restaurant in Times Square, Manhattan, situated on Broadway between west 43rd and 44th streets.

The benefits of revolving doors

Business owners loved the design of the revolving door. Completely noiseless, it prevented snow, rain and dust from blowing into the building. A revolving door can’t be blown open by the wind, it keeps out street noise and enables people to enter and leave at the same time, without creating a bottleneck. As a partial airlock, it minimises heat loss in the building and keeping cold air out.

The original advertising slogan for Van Kannel’s door was “always closed”. However, this was given a rethink, as it wasn’t a great pull for businesses if their door was never open! Van Kannel wrote an advertising pamphlet and said his doors would avoid “noxious effluvia” (unpleasant odours) and “baleful miasmas” (bacteria causing diseases such as cholera) from blowing into the building. He was perhaps a little over the top when he promoted his invention as “saving lives”.

He wrote how the “unfortunate salesman, cashier, or clerk” who worked near a constantly opening front door was more susceptible to “deadly lung and throat diseases” wafting in from the streets. He was irritated when customers described his design as being “like a turnstile”. He quipped this was like saying a “kettle resembled a locomotive boiler”.

How quickly did revolving doors catch on?

Initially, he believed his invention would be popular for both business premises and private abodes. It caught on very quickly for commercial premises, but not so much for the home. However, it was said he kitted out his own marital home and his mother’s house with a total of 14 revolving doors from the first batch manufactured.

The doors were particularly popular in the 19th century for skyscrapers. Not only did they keep out street noises and fumes, but they also helped alleviate the problem of opening conventional doors. The pressure differences caused by having cold air outside the building meeting a large column of warm air inside the building made traditional doors difficult to open and close.

Architects and business owners also liked the design for aesthetic reasons. They said when customers moved from the enclosed, small space of the revolving door, it made the building’s lobby seem larger and more majestic.

Today, more than 130 years after its invention, the revolving door is favoured by many businesses who recognise its many benefits – as their predecessors did way back in the 19th century!