Garage Doors Throughout the Ages

Old Garage Door

Automatic garage doors, as is the case with numerous other household necessities we’ve been conditioned to take for granted, don’t get enough attention from the history buffs among us. While perhaps not as significant of a 20th century invention as, let’s say, the internet or space travel, remotely-opened doors have made our lives more convenient. More importantly, they’ve protected countless automobiles from theft and weather damage. Yes, perhaps society would be a lot worse off if no one had ever invented soap or vaccines. But the importance of garage doors to human civilization shouldn’t be ignored.

Manual garage doors have existed in some incarnation practically throughout recorded time. Stables for horses, for instance, could be pointed to as a precursor to the modern garage. Other examples can be seen in “The Art and History of the Garage Door” by Ramona Lee Visconti. While obviously less convenient than a garage door that opens with the push of a button, the grey, wood and stone entryway depicted on the cover looks like majestic, yet somewhat grim architecture from medieval times. If Eddard Stark owned a classic car collection, perhaps he’d keep them locked up in just such a location.

Automatic garage doors as we now know them didn’t appear until the 1920s, and sadly, their creator is so underrated by historians that the first thing his name conjures on a Google search is the website of a Pennsylvania elementary school named in his honor. Nonetheless, C.G. Johnson is credited for inventing the electric garage door opener in 1926. He also created a system for raising garage doors, as opposed to opening them horizontally like regular doors, in 1921.

As new technology is usually too difficult for those of average means to afford, most Americans wouldn’t be able to afford automatic garage doors until after the economic boom that followed WWII. A well-known brand from that era was manufactured by the Era Meter Company, according to Popular Science. These switches were initially dubbed the “Driv-Rite-In”s, and were sent out to the masses from Chicago. Once electric garage doors took off, other inventors went to work on improving the device, to make it controllable by remote. Somewhat astoundingly, Popular Science reported in 1931 that two completely unrelated companies had filed for patents on very similar radio-controller gadgets during that year with apparently no knowledge of each other’s existence.

When a garage door repairman stops by for repairs or cosmetic changes to an automatic garage door, history buffs may find themselves with an unexpected source of engineering historical trivia.