Hello readers! On this installment of Garage Greatness, we’re going to be exploring the dubious claim that Isaac Newton himself invented the cat door while in the garage! Although this claim is interesting and would certainly make for a good story, many people doubt that it is true, so we will also be discussing the other potential origins of the cat door. Having specialized doors for your pets is a very old idea, and tracking the exact origin is difficult, but we have done our best to verify the information we’re bringing you. We bring the same reliable and dependable service to our blog that we bring to our residential and commercial garage door installation and repair services.
Firstly, the domesticated cat has been around for millennia, with feral cats living together with the people in Cyprus from 7,500 BC forward, and the ancient Egyptians prominently keeping domesticated cats from around 6,000 BC. During these times, cats were often kept to protect the grain supplies of their owners, since a few cats in the barn or grain silo did far more than any number of traps to keep rats and mice away from the food stores. Putting their pets to work as natural hunters, these cultures lived symbiotically with the cats, and although modern cats are usually not used for hunting, in rural communities it is still common for the family’s cat to serve a dual purpose – half pet, half pest deterrent.
Once humans were living in tandem with cats, and especially as cats increasingly lived indoors alongside their owners, it was only natural for cat-sized doors to be developed. There are examples of tiny holes that were allegedly used for cats to pass in and out of the home, which were called, fittingly, “cat holes” – gateras in Spanish, or charières in French. Spain and France both still use these simple features, in rural communities, but in any industrialized region, cats have become house pets that don’t do much hunting anymore.
The terms “cat flap” and “cat door” weren’t recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary until 1957 and 1959, respectively, but the basic idea dates back far further. In the Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, a servingman is described as looking in through a cat hole to try and spot the master of a home he is visiting. This account considerably predates Isaac Newton, who was born in 1642 – but there is even more evidence that Newton was not the actual inventor of the cat door.
The story itself seems believable. Newton was working at Trinity College during the most scientifically successful years of life, and some accounts describe the carriage house that he had converted into an office and residence and being his primary laboratory. Supposedly, the scratching of his cats at his door would interrupt his work, but given the sensitive nature of his experiments into light and optics, he didn’t want to simply cut a hole for the cats. The story goes that he contacted the Trinity College carpenter and asked for two holes to be drilled through his door – one for his cat, and one for her kittens – then covered the holes himself with some felt. This light-proof solution allowed his pets to roam freely without introducing light into his experiments, and freed him up to continue his work.
Now, there are numerous detractors to this story, and there is considerable evidence to count against the tale. Firstly, there is some debate surrounding the question if Newton ever owned pets. Some of his contemporaries wrote that he did not keep animals, while some others only mention a dog. There is certainly no firm evidence that Newton did have a pet while living in Trinity College, Cambridge.
Secondly, most of the information regarding these alleged holes comes from an 1802 account in an anonymously authored essay that described how the English were incompetent, using brilliant Newton as an example. Newton asked for two holes to be put in his door, but of course the kittens merely followed their mother through the larger hole, leaving the smaller hole unused – this alleged misunderstanding was used to argue that even the greatest English minds were prone to making stupid mistakes.
Later, in 1827 (a century after Newton’s death), this same legend is elaborated upon by John M.F. Wright, a mathematician who was a Trinity scholar after Newton. He claimed that “indisputably true is it that there are in the door to this day two plugged holes of the proper dimensions for the respective egresses of cat and kitten.” There is no further confirmation of this point, and even if the alleged holes do exist, there is no proof that this inspired bit of carpentry was Newton’s doing, or done for the sake of cats.
There seems to be no consensus about the historical validity of this story, but it seems to be quite a leap to go from a possible pair of holes in a door to what might have been Newton’s office to assuming that Newton invented something that had been used, in some form, for 7000+ years prior to his birth. Sadly, our conclusion is that Newton was a great thinker and visionary, inventor, but that the honor of inventing the cat door may have to be credited to someone else.
We hope that you’ve found this Garage Greatness enlightening, even if the invention in question may not actually have been created in a garage! Many modern residential homes have pet doors leading in or out of the garage, especially in areas where the practice of letting your cat roam outdoors is more common. In the United Kingdom, for example, three out of every four cats spend time outdoors, so having an easy hatch for access saves the homeowner tons of trouble. Connecting a garage to the interior of the home is also a growing trend, such as hatch doors connecting the pantry to the area of the garage where groceries are typically unloaded, so some homeowners are installing cat flaps into their garage exteriors to let their pets travel from inside, through the garage, to the outdoors. There are even electronic models on the market that can specifically identify certain pets and keep out strays, or keep in sick animals.
The modern home cannot be complete without a pet door, and despite the fact that Newton may not have been responsible for this particular innovation, the simple success of a pet door is testament enough to how well-designed the mechanism is. To this day, the pet door is an excellent option for letting your furry friends roam the outdoors, at minimal interruption to you! Next week’s Garage Greatness will be back to a more normal topic, as we explore the garage founding of Dell, one of the largest computer technology companies in the world.