The Strange Story Behind The Invention Of Revolving Doors

revolving door
“Chivalry died when women started readin’ the s—t in all them magazines. They got too much advice about men from other women.” —Dave Chapelle

In A Nutshell

In the late 1800s, Theophilus van Kannel supposedly designed a revolving door because he hated chivalry. He didn’t like to parry with other men over who should enter or exit a door first. Even worse, he hated to open doors for women. As early skyscrapers were built in US cities near the turn of the 20th century, revolving doors became important for internal temperature control. However, although a social phobia may have spurred van Kannel to design revolving doors, phobias, such as claustrophobia, may also keep people from using them.

The Whole Bushel

Improving upon German inventor H. Bockhacker’s patent for a “door without draft of air,” Theophilus van Kannel received a patent for a “storm-door structure,” later called a “revolving door,” in 1888. As the story goes, van Kannel supposedly designed this type of door because he hated chivalry. He didn’t like to parry with other men over who should enter or exit a door first. Even worse, he hated to open doors for women, so we may have a social phobia to thank for his invention.

Fortunately for van Kannel, the revolving door turns etiquette on its head. Rather than wait for a woman to go first, a man is considered to be chivalrous if he leads the way through a revolving door, using his strength to push it into motion. “A gentleman should always go first and assist the woman through the revolving door, and I observe this on a daily basis,” said Joe Snyder, a doorman at the Park Hyatt Chicago hotel.

As early skyscrapers were built in US cities near the turn of the 20th century, revolving doors became important for internal temperature control. With regular hinged doors, outside air would rapidly flow in and rise to the top, making it difficult to keep buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Revolving doors overcame that problem by producing airlocks, although people could still enter and exit. This type of door also reduced the influx of noise, dust, rain, and snow. In recent years, energy costs were estimated to fall by 30 percent when revolving doors were used instead of hinged doors.

However, revolving doors do pose one significant danger that became apparent when almost 500 people died in a fire at a Boston nightclub in 1942. The club had one revolving door that slowed the escape of fleeing patrons. As a result, many revolving doors now have traditional hinged doors placed on either side to make it easier to evacuate a building in an emergency.

Ironically, although a phobia may have spurred van Kannel to design revolving doors, phobias may also keep people from using them. Whether it’s the fear of being in a confined space, of getting your arms or legs caught in the door, or of getting trapped with another person in one of the compartments, many people avoid revolving doors. In 2006, some MIT researchers observed that no more than 30 percent of the students entering a particular building on campus used the revolving doors. The researchers put up some signs to encourage revolving door usage by touting their benefits.

Designer Andrew Shea repeated the MIT experiment a few years later at Columbia University in New York. He also observed that less than 30 percent of students entered a particular building through its revolving doors. When he placed signs on campus to promote the benefits of revolving doors, their usage increased to 71 percent.

Show Me The Proof

99% Invisible: Revolving Doors
Real Simple: A Man and a Woman Arrive at a Revolving Door. Who Goes Through First?
ABC: Circular logic: phobia, design and the revolving door
The Rockefeller University: Green Tip of the Month: Choose the Revolving Door