The lineage of modern garage doors actually winds back much farther than most people realize. The garage door isn’t something that was invented to meet the needs of the automobile culture that arose in the mid-20th century. It actually goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks of the first and second millennium BC. Because ever since man invented vehicles for moving faster than human power alone would allow he has needed a place to store those vehicles. Below we’re going to trace the evolution of the garage door and look at 8 ways today’s garage door is better than ever.
Table Of Contents
- The Birth of The Garage Door
- Evolution of Garage Door
- Where We Stand
The Birth of The Garage Door
The ancients didn’t have sedans or SUVs. They didn’t have motorcycles or pickup trucks or ATVs. They had chariots. The chariot was actually the primary form of wheeled conveyance for a longer period of time than any other type of vehicle that’s ever existed. For more than 2,000 years it was the primary vehicle for the well to do as well as the military. Contrast that with the modern automobile that has been around for just over 100 years.
While many ancient garages amounted to little more than what we would think of as carports there were some that had hinged doors on them. While these crude doors were a far cry from today’s glass garage doors they nonetheless protected the prized chariot from the elements as well as from the less than honourable intentions of other citizens of the ancient world. Ancient Biblical texts refer to what are believed to be ancient gatehouses, which was a popular structure for storing the chariot.
The Post Roman World
The ancient garage existed in an essentially unchanged state from the time of the Trojan Wars right up through the rise and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. Following the fall of Rome (which was actually more of a decline that lasted a couple of centuries) most of the building techniques of the Romans were lost as was the need for the chariot.
During medieval times elaborate carriages began to appear on what passed for roads in post Roman Europe. These carriages were based on earlier Roman concepts but were lighter and typically more comfortable. It was also during this time that the first real carriage houses appeared. They were spacious and provided a place where carriages and an increasingly large number of freight carrying wagons could be worked on and stored safely. The doors on these carriage houses swung open and were often heavy duty affairs. Many of these medieval doors are still in use today throughout modern Europe both on the continent and in the UK.
Into the Modern Age Garage Door
The carriage house and the doors that protected it continued to be refined right up through the colonial period although the manner by which the doors worked barely changed but for the details in the hardware. It wasn’t until the invention of the internal combustion engine and the horseless carriage in the late 19th century that both the garage and the garage door as we now know them began to take shape. At first the automobile garage followed the tradition of the carriage house and was a detached structure set away from the main house. But soon people began to tire of the walk from the detached garage to the house. Primarily because there was no longer any need for it.
You see, the reason the carriage house had always been separate was to keep the many and varied smells generated by the horses away from the main house. Now that horses were no longer needed the justification for keeping the garage separate was no longer valid. As a result, during the middle of the 20th century a new type of home emerged. One with a built in garage. This type of garage called for a different approach to the door and the device we now think of as the overhead garage door was born.
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Evolution of Garage Door
The first overhead door was produced by the Cornell Iron Works in 1906 and christened the “Float Over Door”. It was incredibly simple and didn’t make much of a splash at first. The garage door we know today is the result of 8 advances that have occurred since the initial introduction of the Float Over.
1. Widespread Adoption
In the decade following the end of the Second World War car culture took off and the exodus to the suburbs began in earnest. It was at this time that the overhead door finally found a home in the tens of thousands of ranch style houses that sprang up in developments on the outskirts of countless North American cities, including Toronto. At this time however, the overhead door was still a manual appliance that required the homeowner to get out of their car, unlock the door with a key, turn the T-bar handle and manually lift the door up and out of the way. Nonetheless, this ability to move the door from a vertical position covering the garage opening to a horizontal position tucked into the space above the car made the space-devouring carriage house door obsolete almost overnight. While you can still see carriage house doors on the occasional garage, the widespread adoption of the overhead door in the 1950’s essentially signalled the end of the hinged garage door era.
2. The Introduction of the Motor Garage Door
Like the overhead door itself the electric powered garage door opener was invented long before it was widely adopted. In fact, the first overhead garage door opener was produced by C.G. Johnson of Hartford City, Indiana in 1926 but the idea would not gain widespread acceptance until the decade following World War II. The advancement that is often credited with providing the spark that led to acceptance of the garage door opener was the invention of the keypad opening mechanism. In most cases one key pad would be located at the beginning of the driveway and another would be inside the garage. This represented an enormous leap forward in convenience and changed the way people viewed their homes. No longer was the house just an immobile object that provided shelter from the elements. It was now interactive. At the push of a button you could make the garage door open from a distance. In many respects the motorized overhead door of the 1950s represented the birth of the smart home.
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3. The First Remotes
While the keypad control introduced in the early 1950s represented a significant leap forward in garage door technology what really sent homeowners into motorized garage door ecstasy was the invention of the remote. Remotes didn’t require you to stop and open a window on a bone-chilling Toronto night in order to enter a code into a keypad. Instead they sent a wireless signal from inside the car to the garage door opener that prompted it to open or close. These early remotes were not just built in convenience, however. They were also a built in problem. That problem arose from the way they worked. The early remote sent either a preset code to the door or they simply sent a bunch of white noise toward the door on a frequency the opener was set to. As such it wasn’t long before homeowners began to realize that, because every door produced by a particular brand used the same frequency, commanding one door to open could open other doors in the neighbourhood too. Thankfully this issue was solved by the modern remote that utilizes a complex algorithm to generate a unique code every time the door is opened.
4. The Introduction of Insulation
Most garage doors sold from the 1950s to the 1980s were made of wood panels. Even today a significant portion of garage doors are wood panel doors. Wood looks great, is easy to paint and provides pretty good insulation. Over time however other materials came to be used including steel and aluminum and, in an effort to keep costs down, the panels on these doors were often just a thin exterior sheet and nothing more. As a result the garage was left without even the minimal insulation it used to enjoy from the solid wood panels. From coast to coast garages became ice boxes in the winter and ovens in the summer. But spiralling energy prices toward the end of the 20th century caused a widespread reassessment of home insulation and cheap garage door panels were cited as a major source of waste. Insulating these energy drains then became a common practice. Today, no enlightened home owner has an uninsulated garage door on their house.
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5. Auto Reverse
While the remote controlled, motorized overhead garage door was the result of constant refinement and innovation, by 1990 it was still coming up woefully short in one crucial area: safety. While various safety features (including an electric eye reverse feature) had been designed, tested and proposed for garage doors, up to that time none had been adopted. As a result too many people, especially kids, were getting hit by closing garage doors and the numbers of dead and seriously injured were growing with each passing year. Finally laws were passed in the early 1990s that made it mandatory for modern garage doors to have an auto reverse system. The auto reverse system utilized a beam of light that shone across the door opening. If anything broke this beam of light as the door was closing a signal would be sent to the motor to stop the door and send it back to its fully open position. The inclusion of the auto reverse system has saved countless lives and prevented countless injuries and is one reason today’s modern garage doors stand head and shoulders above their predecessors.
6. New Materials
Back in the day you had basically one choice when it came to garage door materials: wood. While the wooden panels often came sporting different designs they were nonetheless all wood and roughly the same size. Most were also white. Some homeowners asserted their independence by adding glass panels and different hardware touches. But a drive down just about any suburban lane in the 70s and early 80s presented an amazing visual homogeneity when it came to garage doors. Finally, toward the end of the 20th century that began to change with the aforementioned steel and aluminum doors followed by composite wood, fibreglass, vinyl and even glass garage doors. An insulated steel door requires less maintenance than wood and is also very secure. Aluminum won’t rot like wood and is very light, which is good for the opener. However, like steel, aluminum is prone to denting. Fiberglass is easily fashioned to mimic other materials, is lightweight and won’t rust or dent. It can, however, yellow and become brittle over time. While vinyl doors have become popular because they don’t dent, will never rust or rot, require little maintenance and are lightweight. This variety of new materials is another reason today’s garage doors rock.
7. Unlimited Design Options
As we mentioned the overhead garage door was never exactly a style winner during its first several decades of widespread adoption. If you wanted a new garage door you had your choice of wood or wood or maybe wood, with the option to add some different hardware and maybe some windows. Today however, the garage door has grown up and is available in a wide array of styles, finishes, materials, textures and colours; including frameless glass garage doors with discrete aluminum frames that are invisible from the street. Today’s custom garage doors know no limit when it comes to their look. They can be made to effectively mimic the material on the outside of your home so as to meld in seamlessly. Anyone viewing the home from the street would have no way of knowing a garage door was there until it opened. Even ready-made garage doors today come in a dizzying array of styles, finishes and colours so there is always one that is sure to match your taste and design requirements. The elevation of modern garage doors from design also-rans to design leaders has been both remarkable and satisfying.
8. Planet-Wide Remote Control
The final (to this date anyway) and most far reaching (literally) refinement in overhead garage door technology has been the integration of the garage door into the Internet of Things. The Internet of Things is a worldwide collection of objects, appliances, machines and more that can be remotely controlled via smartphone or tablet from anywhere on the planet an authorised user can find an Internet connection. Gone are the days when homeowners would reach the airport on the way to their vacation destination and wonder “Did I close the garage door?” In the past they would have had to recruit a friend or neighbour to go check for them. If they could find one who could spare the time. Today, that same homeowner need only take out their smartphone, open the appropriate app and see the state of their door in real time. If the door is indeed open they can close it remotely by sending a signal from their phone. The result: peace of mind. This type of remote control can also come in handy if someone in the family locks themselves out of the house. Simple send the open command to the door via your phone and they are quickly indoors safe and secure. This type of global remote control is the biggest step up in garage door tech since the invention of the keypad entry system.
Where We Stand
Modern garage doors are a fully integrated part of contemporary life. They’ve officially joined the ever-growing Internet of Things, which puts them in the same high tech league as remote controlled CCTV cameras, the smart fridge and intelligent thermostats that allow you to warm up the house before you get home. They’re also one of the most cost-effective ways to lower your household energy bills. That’s because, as we’ve seen, installing a new insulated garage door will make your garage considerably warmer during the endless Ontario winters and prevent it from becoming a heat vacuum that siphons off warm air from adjoining rooms. Frameless glass garage doors and garage doors that blend seamlessly into the exterior of your home are resetting the bar for what’s possible aesthetically. While long lasting and dent proof vinyl doors are the family’s best friend. And let’s not forget the humble auto reverse feature on today’s garage doors that has quietly gone about its job and prevented myriad tragedies since its introduction some 25 years ago.
The garage door has come a long way in the past few millennia. It’s more convenient, more efficient, more reliable, more durable and more beautiful than ever before. Where the garage door goes from here is anyone’s guess but one thing is certain, modern garage doors are an essential part of the modern way of life.