A view from Dave Trott: Plus ça change
A view from Dave Trott

Plus ca change

Theodophilus Van Kannel was born in Philadelphia in 1841.

He was born into a wealthy family, his mother held regular salons.

At these, all the other mothers liked to display their well brought up offspring.

This was awkward for her because Theodophilus refused to obey rules.

Chivalry, for instance, made no sense to him.

He didn’t see why he should hold a door open for women who were perfectly capable of opening the door themselves.

This behaviour embarrassed his mother so much that she spanked him in front of all the other mothers and daughters.

Which, of course, just made Theodophilus more determined to overturn that rule.

Especially when he later married a woman who, he found out, put a premium on chivalry.

She expected him to open every door in the house whenever she wished to pass through. 

One morning, Theodophilus stormed out of the bedroom, saying: "All this opening doors twaddle just will not do. I cannot be rushing around my own house to usher you from room to room! You are a grown woman and can locomote perfectly well on your own."

But his wife, Abigail, was just as strong-willed, and when he returned home that evening she was still sitting in the bedroom in the exact spot where he left her.

Something had to be done about this problem of opening doors for women.

So for the next three years he set about solving the problem.

It cost him $9,837 (a quarter of a million in today’s dollars) but in 1888 he received US Patent 387,571 for his "Storm Door Structure".

What it actually was, was the world’s first revolving door. 

It was the solution to his problem, because it was actually now more chivalrous for a man to go through first so he could push the door for a lady to follow. 

Consequently, he had 14 of these doors fitted in his and his mother’s homes.

He was so pleased with the results, he decided to market the door.

But of course, he had to sell it to the public as a logical improvement.

So he wrote in a sales pamphlet: "This door prevents a direct path between the interior and exterior of a structure, making it useful as a partial airlock, minimizing heat-loss."

And he carefully laid-out all the selling points:

    1. It is perfectly noiseless.
    2. It effectually prevents the entrance of snow, rain, or dust.
    3. It cannot be blown open by the wind.
    4. It excludes street noise.
    5. Persons can pass both in and out at the same time.

    The original advertising slogan was: "The door that is always closed."

    In the language of the day it was advertised as preventing the entrance of "noxious effluvia" and "baleful miasmas".

    The first commercial use of the revolving door was in 1899 at Rector’s restaurant, in Times Square between 43rd and 44th Streets.

    Today, revolving doors are used on practically every office building in the world.

    The irony is that gentlemen will still let ladies go first.

    So however much Theodophilus Van Kannen revolutionised doors, he didn’t change the behaviour that was the original reason for his invention.

    What can we, in a time of constant technological innovation, learn from that?

    Well, as Bill Bernbach said: "It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. 

    "It will take millions more for them to even vary. 

    "It is fashionable to talk about changing man. 

    "A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man."

    Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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