A (Very) Short History of the Garage Door Opener

They’re a common modern convenience now, but it wasn’t too long ago that garage door openers didn’t exist at all. Heck, cars themselves are a very recent invention in the grand scheme of things. Like cars, garage door openers are very much a product of the 20th century.


Early Garage DoorWe all learn in school that, although not the first practical car, the Ford Model-T was the commercially mass-produced vehicle that took off in a significant way. This was the car that really pushed aside horse-drawn carriages as a prime form of personal transport.

It may be hard to imagine now, but since no one up to that point actually had a car, people didn’t have garages as we know them. So I guess there was this awkward time where people sort of just parked their model T cars wherever they could find room.

Mr. Johnson

Spotting this wide open gap in the market, one Mr. C.G. Johnson invented the sectional overhead door we all know today in 1921, thirteen years after the first Model T rolled off the line.

The door proved popular and in 1926 Johnson’s Overhead Door Company added the electric garage door opener to its product catalog. Now, you didn’t have to get out of your car to open the garage!

It’s Electric

These early electric garage door openers were remote operated, but not wireless. There would be two wired switches. One a keypad on a post outside and the other a switch inside the garage.

Although they were invented early in the 20th century, electric garage door openers didn’t become all that popular until long after. In an issue of Popular Science dated February 1931, it is documented how two widely separate teams came up with the idea of a radio-controlled garage door opener.

Both remotes were built into the cars themselves. One used a rather forward-thinking code pulse system, while the other simply generated white noise on the right frequency to activate. The code-pulse system even had a safety feature that would stop the door if something got in the way.

You Dare Interfere?

As garage openers became more popular and urban and suburban living spaces became more dense, people’s garages were in range of each other’s remotes. It turns out that if your opener was listening for the same frequency as your neighbor’s, both doors would open or close at the same time.

The solution to this was to use fixed code pulses that were set on both the remote and opener unit, so even if two units used the same frequency they would only open if they heard the right code.

Fixed code systems became widespread in the 1970s and usually offered an binary switch combination with eight or twelve switches. These DIP (dual inline package) switches provided 256 and 4096 possible combinations, respectively.

This made it hard for thieves as well, since before they just needed one of each remote to go on a little shopping spree.

Hopping Mad

Cue the digital age and now it becomes possible to make a device that will unlock a fixed-code door in less than ten seconds. Have a look at my article on garage door hacking for more details.

This is the main reason we have so-called rolling-code technology today. Every time the remote is used the code is expired and a new one is primed. Hackers are however already devising ways around this.

Concerned Citizens

The other notable point in the history of garage door openers had to do with safety. Although one of the very first designs for a garage door opener had both a safety sensor and a fixed code system, these features did not become standard for quite some time.

Unfortunately in the United States quite a few people, especially children, had suffered death or injury at the mercy of garage door openers with inadequate safety measures. By 1993 a federal law was passed that requires a minimum level of safety in all garage door openers. You can read about it in a different article here on the site.

Since then, death or injury caused by a garage door opener has been virtually unheard of.

Back to the Future

Today the major trend is towards smart, Internet-controlled home automation and the humble garage door opener is playing a key role, as I discuss in another article. This popular device has come a long way and as long as we need a place to store personal transportation, it will be with us for the foreseeable future.