Reader Request Week 2012 #4: Future Doorknobs or Lack Thereof

Molnar asks:

It appears to be a near-universal assumption by science fiction writers, directors, and producers, that there exists a set of precipitating events leading to our complete abandonment of doorknob technology. Do you share this assumption? Would you be willing to speculate on the reason for this assumption, or on the nature of the developmental pathway? Do you foresee any significant downsides, should this eventuality come to pass?

I love this question.

And I have an answer for it, which is that for a while there, having magically sliding doorknobless doors was a cheap and easy way of showing that you were in THE FUTURE. Here in the crappy present, you had to open your own doors! Through physical effort and mechanical energy! But in the future they will slide open on their own. All you had to do was be there for the miracle. This is also why, incidentally, in the future, doors would also be replaced by irised portals. A door? Shaped like a rectangle? How quaint. Do you hand crank your car windows, too?

And this makes perfect sense for writing science fiction, in which part of the goal is to convince people that they are looking on events that happen in a future time, where even the most mundane things have been touched by the magical future wand of futureness. So that’s why you’ll never dirty a doorknob in the future. It’s also why you’ll drink synthahol and wear silvery tunics and whatnot.

In reality, which is generally more complex than (if not as procedurally coherent as) a science fiction film, we mix and match technology from different eras without thinking about it. For example, right now I am writing this sitting at my kitchen table. The table was constructed using wood and nails and glue, which makes it, I don’t know, let’s say 17th century technology. The chair I’m sitting in is the same. On the table is my laptop computer, which in this Mac Air iteration is pretty 21st Century, three books, including a hardcover book (the codex being a technology going back to the Romans, but this iteration has 20th century technology in it), two paperback books (also 20th century), a paper pamphlet (old tech) on which rests a remote ignition fob for my car (new, new tech), a ballpoint pen (19th century), and a single lens reflex camera (19th century, but portable versions are 20th century) with a digital imager (20th century, with this iteration of it being 21st century). I’m drinking Coca-Cola (19th Century) in its Coke Zero variant (21st century), from a soda can (20th century), and eating a banana, specifically a Cavendish cultivar (19th century — and yes, the creation of the Cavendish is technology, of an agricultural sort).

The doorknob, incidentally, is a surprisingly recent technology, dating to the 18th century.

We mix and match the tech because a) our lives are not being written for the amusement of readers, b) technology that “works” tends to stick around. Simple wooden chairs and tables are likely to exist 400 years from now because human physiology is not likely to change substantially, and people will still want a place to park their butts and put objects down on without having to set them on the floor, and not every chair and table will need to be made of space age miracle components. Likewise, here and now, if I really wanted to, I could replace every door in my house with a sliding door without a doorknobs — I could even get sliding doors that open without me having to touch them. But why would I? Doorknobby doors work just fine, the look just fine, they’re cheap and I don’t want to have to bother with replacing them.

I will note that my futures have doorknobs — Chapter Three of Fuzzy Nation clearly has Jack Holloway using one to open and close his door — because I think most people in the future will live like people live today: with a mix and match of technologies with an emphasis on the ones that work without fuss. Doorknobs, while not exactly the sexiest technology, are also pretty reliable, unfussy things. I think they’ll stay around.

Also, anecdotally, I think science fiction writers today are more inclined to keep doorknobs in their futures than writers of the past might have been, for a number of different reasons but mostly because I don’t think readers need to be informed that THIS STORY IS IN THE FUTURE as much as maybe they used to — or alternately, that they pick up the clues differently than they did before. This may not necessarily be the case with TV or film science fiction — I didn’t see a lot of doorknobs in the most recent Star Trek film — but visual science fiction is a different animal, perhaps.

Anyway. Doorknobs: Probably a future-proof technology. I’m treating it as such.

(It’s not too late to get questions in for this year’s Reader Request Week — add yours here).

88 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2012 #4: Future Doorknobs or Lack Thereof”

  1. Being an SCA’er, who also happens to ride herd on super computers, yeah, I see the mix pretty well. Back in college, I ended up making a period style bed (wood frame/legs, rope support) that wouldn’t have looked out of place in ancient Egypt. Used that bed for more than 10 years because it was cheap and did the job. Getting married, well, a lot of bachelor level stuff changed (what are all these pillows doing on the couch and do we actually need more than two chairs?).

    And now daughter’s growing up, having had access to a computer all her life, used to easy access to media and knowledge, wirelessly around the house. But still, she’s also learning things like archery, hand crafts, wood working with hand tools, and even good old calligraphy and book making. I’m hoping that her children, as cool and miraculous as their world may be also find joy in past technology. I guess it’s a good think I still have my Ti 99/4A computer, that boots into basic and has to be explicitly told what to do.

  2. Great question. My own favorite futuristic technology is cellphones. We still drive cars pretty much the same way we have for over 60 years, we still live in houses that basically use the same form as 200 years ago, but are well on the way to replacing all fixed-location phones with personal, hand-sized units that (a) are totally customizable for your personality, (b) are usually affordable to the average worker, and (c) contain cameras, internet capability, games, and storage capability beyond what computers had 30 years ago.
    All this took less than 30 years.

  3. I was hoping that the last sentence of the question would have inspired one of your hilarious fictional riffs, this one on automated sliding doors that don’t work, probably because they’re actually petulant aliens. (To be clear: I’m not demanding that you write what I want, I’m just saying. It’s not like you don’t know by now what your public persona as a writer is.) There exist in the Star Trek blooper reels some painfully funny shots of the actors walking into doors that don’t open, because in the original Trek the sliding doors were actually operated by somebody off-camera with a lever, and if that person missed the cue … ouch.

  4. Scalzi “I think science fiction writers today are more inclined to keep doorknobs in their futures than writers of the past might have been, for a number of different reasons but mostly because I don’t think readers need to be informed that THIS STORY IS IN THE FUTURE as much as maybe they used to — or alternately, that they pick up the clues differently than they did before. ”

    Well you may be right, you’re the author, after all. But I’d be inclined to think that spiffy doors that open when you walk up to them just aren’t all that science fictiony impressive now days. Not a day goes by that I don’t walk up to a door only to have it fling itself open for my convenience. Even “low tech” doors frequently have a button that I can push, should I be feeling too 21st century to open it the old fashioned way.

  5. “Simple wooden chairs and tables are likely to exist 400 years from now because human physiology is not likely to change substantially, and people will still want a place to park their butts and put objects down on without having to set them on the floor, ”

    Have you been playing The Sims? :)

  6. I winder if a “contagion” style outbreak will stimulate a movement away from doorknobs among the survivors.

  7. Actually, your attitude toward doorknobs is rather US-centric. Here in Germany, we don’t have doorknobs, we have door handles. They are significantly more practical, since I can open a door with an elbow or a foot if my hands are full. The fact that front doors to houses are like hotel room doors, in that they require a key to open from the outside is rather more problematic, but at least I don’t have to worry that I forgot to lock up.

    It’s also interesting that you defend the survival of the doorknob while at the same time talking about the keyless entry fob for your car. Given that smart houses are already here, albeit in their extraordinarily expensive infancy, surely something similar lies in the future of the house. OTOH, I can see problems if I have to get up in the middle of the night to let the dog out or just want to walk from the bedroom to the bathroom without getting dressed/taking my fob/combadge/whatever.

  8. A few reasons why we might see the end of the doorknob in the future:
    1. Germs. Doorknobs are notorious for spreading them
    2. Doorknobs imply that the door opens on a hinge, and in an increasingly crowded world (or spaceship), room for doors to swing inward or outward might be at a premium.
    3. When a spaceship is under acceleration, doors tend to swing if not latched properly.
    4. In zero-g, opening a door requires the opener to be anchored to something. Clearly this is a problem when fleeing from a pursuing alien.
    5. Friendly aliens could be too short to reach the knob. This may or may not be a good thing (see #4)
    6. Swinging doors require a certain stiffness to hold their shape when open, whereas a sliding door runs on a track, and could be made considerably lighter/thinner (assuming the mechanisn is also light)

  9. demetriosx: I am in the US, and my home has doorhandles. I think the semantics argument is moot, though. ;)

    My grocery store has two sets automatic doors. The entry door on the right side of the building does not open for me unless I stand on my tippy toes and wave my hand in front of the sensor. It opens normally for everyone else. I’ve watched people go in 30 seconds before me just fine. Doors with knobs (or handles) don’t have that problem.

  10. I’m somewhat stunned that I’m the first person of the exceptionally knowledgeable Whatever commentariat to note that if your table and chairs were made with wood and nails and glue, they’re not so much 17th century technology as themselves being a wide range of technologies. While the basic design and the use of wood for construction probably goes back several thousand years, nails were not commonly used in furniture construction until the introduction of cheap machine-made wire nails in the early 1900s. Before that, furniture was generally put together with pegs, wedges, mortise and tenon joints, and the like. And don’t even get started on the glue…

  11. @ Simon S:

    I remember reading one of the original series actors (Shatner?) saying that after face-planting into one of those doors, it was always difficult to shoot a scene and approach a door acting as if it would never even occur to you that it wouldn’t open.

    @ schnauzer:

    Bizarrely, I sometimes feel apologetic if I trigger a door-opener when I don’t plan on going through the door.

  12. Man, if there are no doorknobs in the future, dogs everywhere are going to get into [i]everything[/i].

  13. I DO have doorknobs in my science fiction webcomic (the next two pages will actually feature the main character opening her livingroom door), but honestly? It looks just plain odd to me. The characters are using holo gadgets and door knobs and classic clothhangers as opposed to ultra-modern-cloth-hanging-gadgets and it gives me a slight case of mental dissonance. I think tv-tropes calls it schizo tech.

    Now, on the star ships it’s another thing due the reasons Joe Bernick said, but even there I make sure that most of the doors can be opened manuelly somehow.

    Luckely, that’s only a problem with humans in that setting, my main alien race just plain doesn’t do doors.

  14. Lisa W – Dogs of the future won’t be stopped by doorknobs because they will all have envolved opposable thumbs by then!

    And it’s a sad commentary on my state of mind that when I saw the title of this post I immeadiately flashed to doorknobs as an insult and that this piece was going to be how we’ll still be suffering their influence in the future.

  15. > a) our lives are not being written for the amusement of readers,

    I always felt my life was written more for the laughter of a capricious god.

  16. Not bizarre at all. If you live in cold country, as I do, you send a blast of cold air in to assault the poor receptionist/cashier at her workstation every time you fool the door.

    Bearpaw says:
    March 21, 2012 at 10:39 am
    Bizarrely, I sometimes feel apologetic if I trigger a door-opener when I don’t plan on going through the door.

  17. Demetrios X:

    “Actually, your attitude toward doorknobs is rather US-centric. Here in Germany, we don’t have doorknobs, we have door handles.”

    So the doorknobs I saw when I was in Germany a few months ago were just a crazy hallucination on my part?

    Also, mind you, the major difference between “doorknob” and “door handle” is the shape of the handle; the mechanism of how they work is the same.

    “It’s also interesting that you defend the survival of the doorknob while at the same time talking about the keyless entry fob for your car.”

    What’s also interesting (and I say that without snark, actually) is that the keyless fob entry comes with an actual physical key hidden in it, just in case the fob battery dies and you need to get into your car.

  18. “Doorknobs, while not exactly the sexiest technology, are also pretty reliable, unfussy things. I think they’ll stay around.”

    Well, this may sound weird, but I think sometimes “fuss” is actually a definition of “outside of my unnoticed social programming.”

    In other words, we learn behaviors without even realizing it. There are two aspects to a door – the technological aspect and the behavioral aspect. Technologically, a knobbed door is a pretty simple device, kind of hard to break, needing to powering or rechargeing, and that’s a great advantage.

    Behaviorally, we require certain things from a door. We require it to open when we walk up to it. If our hands are full, we can’t open it ourselves, so a remote control is utterly useless (and that’s why so few electric doors are even push button). If our hands are empty, it take us less very little effort to turn the knob, whereas it might take us some effort to find a remote, so the remote control is still utterly useless (the exception is the car door – the security feature of locking and unlocking the car is functionally fused to the remote opening function). So our necessity dictates the nature of door technology.

    But why is the mechanism which manually opens a door actualy knob shaped? Why do you rotate it to open it? What if, fifty years down the line, our current digital technology has trained us to behave differently even around our manual devices? If I walk up to a new digital device and don’t know how it’s operated (and don’t see buttons), I will often tap the screen to see if I activate a touch function. Then, if something happens, I will try to double tap on the icon or text to make the next step occur. But I suspect that my youngest kid, when she’s an adult, will walk up to a device and immediately try to swipe her finger rather than tapping it. For all I know, by then doors will be latched with slides (albeit geared slides that are easier to use than old bolts), simply because sliding is the action that people will think is “intuitive.”

  19. The Firefly series did a great job of blending old and future tech, but interestingly it was unrealistic in the opposite direction. While its believable that the future will be filled with old things, its not particularly realistic to assume that a brand new civilization would build things in the old world way. You might still use doorknobs and door handles, because they are simple and practical, but you probably wouldn’t use horses and wagons over the modern version of cars, etc. Although, at least they explained the use of old world tech well.

  20. I have been recently watching Space: 1999 under the incorrect assumption that it would be as cool now as it was when I was a kid. One of the things that really bugs the Hell out of me is that they have these gadgets they wear on their belts that act as some kind of video communicator. However, they also have to take it off their belt and point it at a door to get it to open. Not just airlocks, but every single interior door in the moonbase. This seems like the most ridiculously inconvenient way to open doors, no doubt included because someone thought it looked “spacey.”

  21. demetriosx, I can easily immagine a near-future where most/all homes use some form of keyless entry. MAKE and Intstructables can’t seem to go a single month without presenting a new variation on RFID locks or keyless deadbolts. The technology will doubtless evolve to mimic new-model cars, which unlock in the presence of their fob without any interaction from the user.

    That said, a simple solenoid (small linear motor) is all that’s required to make a keyless lock mechanically effective. Automatic doors are another story. You need bigger motors and more mechanical engineering. Yes, they’re all over the place in supermarkets and malls, but not for every single door. You’ll probably see them at a building’s entrance, but past that? Individual stores or offices in a larger building won’t bother with them.

    The reason is, as our host mentions, cost. A manual door is cheap, an automatic door isn’t. People will still be cheap in the future.

    For me, this is one of the things that made Firefly such an appealing show. The big wooden table they sat around in the galley was such a perfect example of this premise. They were on a spaceship, but they still sat down at a wooden table. Why? Well why not? It was probably cheaper than a metal table when Mal bought it.

  22. I have on several occasions nearly walked into doors, expecting them to open for me.

    And yes, I don’t like having to use my account to log in. It doesn’t let me use my email, and it doesn’t list my grammar blog for the website.

  23. @ schnauzer:

    Well, yes, but I feel apologetic to the *door*. Not as apologetic as if it was an actual person mistakenly opening it for me, but still.

  24. @Lisa W: Three dogs are the reason we have door knobs and not latches, like wife and daughter initially wanted.

  25. One of my favorite “In the future, doors will be awesome” moments is in the original Flash Gordon serials with Buster Crabbe. Apparently, in the future, doors will be opened by some kind of hydraulic technology that actually requires quite a lot of muscle power to operate. So you get Crabbe and others cheerfully pretending to throw their entire bodies against a massive lever, just to open a door, because future!

    Also they all carry swords.

    Also, I too have fallen afoul of WordPress’ weird login bug. This future sucks, I want the one with hydraulic doors.

  26. I love this post (and the original question).

    Architecture in sci-fi in general (films at least) often seems unlikely to me. There are these fabulous visuals of entire cities made of glass and metal and plastic and huge skyscrapers and lots of white, grey, silver…


    So in the future, we’re going to tear down perfectly good 20th or 21st century buildings to replace them with something “modern” – not to mention 14th century castles, 18th century palaces, et al? And then all of our new buildings are going to look absolutely identical? They’re all going to be bascially 21st century style, but just a bit more impressive-looking and made with new materials? There’s not going to be a single brick or stone building built, and no single-storey houses? Architects aren’t ever going to be inspired by architecture of the past (as with neoclassical architecture being inspired by Greek & Roman buildings from millennia previously) or come up with all new designs that have never been seen before?

    So really, it’s not just the doorknobs!

  27. @ its a thought (@itsathought2):

    In a heavily colonial context, that sort of mix of high and low tech might make sense depending on the costs of interstellar shipping and what’s involved in setting up a local manufacturing infrastructure.

    Or to put it another way, horses can make more horses. Cars, not so much. (Not yet, anyway.)

  28. Pre-door knob era (PDK), it looks like simple latches for front doors either rotated up, with a rope or handle on the latch, or slid sideways. I can see how door knobs came about, with rotational movement keeping you from having to put too many holes through a door.

    I like the idea of a basic horizontal solenoid with horizontal touch pad on door surface to activate it but until we have doors/houses with backup batteries (build household batteries into all the doors?), I wouldn’t want to depend on them.

  29. NotAlwaysRight has several entries on the theme of what happens when people get too used to automatic doors:

    I like automatic doors because you get to pretend you’re a Jedi (or Sith) and wave dramatically at the door to open it. I used to do this all the time walking into the Port Authority terminal on 42nd street.

    As for dogs and cats, a quick search on YouTube will bring up evidence that some non-human mammals have figured out how to defeat our door-latching schemes.

  30. Sliding or ‘pocket’ doors – as opposed to the hinged sort – have ben around for a couple of centuries, at sea. They don’t swing and slam when you’re underway, and they don’t preempt space in a cramped compartment. Knobs is a different issue.
    When I win the lottery, Memison Anova will have sliding doors.

  31. @ Scalzi
    I have to say that in 13 years in-country I’ve never seen a doorKNOB and my German wife informs me that they don’t have them here. Maybe they put them in hotels so American tourists won’t be too confused? I don’t know. I had also wondered about whether keyless entry systems had a physical alternative. On the whole, that’s a technology I’m rather ambiguous about. I can imagine lots of situations where I may not want my car to unlock just because I happen to be close by.

  32. In Larry Niven’s book “N Space” there is a chapter “Building The Mote in God’s Eye”. In that chapter, Niven quotes Heinlein:

    “The best way to give the flavor of the future is to drop in, without
    warning, some detail. Example: ‘…the door dilated.'” ~ Robert Heinlein

  33. “Also, anecdotally, I think science fiction writers today are more inclined to keep doorknobs in their futures than writers of the past might have been, for a number of different reasons but mostly because I don’t think readers need to be informed that THIS STORY IS IN THE FUTURE as much as maybe they used to”

    I was thinking that it’s because doors that automatically slide open as you approach is no longer a clue that THIS STORY IS IN THE FUTURE, since such doors exist in the present for a fairly large proportion of people in developed countries. So the point you made so well at the beginning of your post (and which is one of those things that make perfect sense but I’d never thought about quite that way–so thank you), that is, the visual shorthand signaling the future, is no longer the effect the viewer experiences when seeing automatic doors.

  34. Props to DG Lewis @ March 21, 2012 at 10:36 am. The table by itself is most likely a mix of technologies from BCE through to the 21st century (depending on when it was purchased). The edge is probably shaped into an ogee, a profile that appears on structures as far back as the Tomb of Cyrus (590 BCE). The joinery is probably a mixture of mortise and tenon, dowels, biscuits, and pocket screws. Depending on the makers, the materials might include space age composites, and the finish and glue probably include chemicals that date to within a year of the table’s manufacture, since those two components are constantly being tweaked and improved by the various companies who make them.

  35. And honestly, what will we run to touch when we fart in the future, if not for the honorable door nob?

  36. That is an important point about mixes of historical technology.

    Re. the table, wood, glue and nails
    Theophilus, On Divers arts, early 12th century:
    Chapter 17
    “The indvidual pieces for altar and door panels are first carefully fitted together with the shaping tool that is used by coopers and vat makers. Then they should be stuck together with cheese glue, which is made in this way.”

    Chapter 92 :
    When you have made iron locks and hinges for small chests and for doors, finally heat them and smear them with pitch. The nails, however, should be tinned.”
    Note though that each of them is being used a little differenlty to modern uses.

    I have to say that here in the UK, doorknobs have long been out of favour in new builds because push down handles are easier to use and/ or key into the locking system.

    I suppose a simple way of indicating improving technology would be similar to the aluminium can. Cans nowadays use something like a third or a half less Al, or probably even more, thanks to innovative and cunning technology which makes every possible use of the shape and grain structure to make them stronger. So your character in the future might be unable to do things with widgets that we now use for lots of other purposes, because in the future they make them stronger or smaller or something.

  37. In a lot of instances “space doors” are sandwiched inside the walls because they therefore can provide air-tight seals in either direction without additional engineering. Doorknobs don’t entirely fit into that (though the way Babylon 5’s doors open, for instance, they could since they pivot and leave part of the door exposed even when open IIRC).

  38. Religious Jews will always have some sort of handhold, as the Shabbat rules include no use or causation of use of electricity, so no motion-sensor sliding doors in the future for them. Manual doors, even if sliding, will always need a handhold, and hinges are much more efficient non-electric technology than sliding tracks.

  39. “I can imagine lots of situations where I may not want my car to unlock just because I happen to be close by.”

    The ones I’ve seen, you have to push a button on the fob for it to unlock/lock the door.

  40. @dlongwing “I can easily immagine a near-future where most/all homes use some form of keyless entry.”

    I can easily imagine that, too. Twice I have distractedly tried to lock/unlock the front door of my house when arriving/leaving home with my car key fob. In my defense, my hands were full and my mind was somewhere else on both occasions. I really wish I had a device like that, though. Not only would it be more convenient, it would make it much harder to lock yourself out of your own home, which I have also done more than once.

  41. Maybe hospitals will be among the first to adopt automatic doors in order to reduce the spread of germs. But then how do they knock on room doors to make sure it’s okay for them to come in? Oh, maybe they’re not fully automatic – it could take waving a key at a proximity pad to actually cause the door to open. Makes it easy to combine with access control security.

  42. I’ll vote for doorknobs still being around in the future simply because the current design of doors (leading to the use of the knobs) seems more efficient to me than the ones we’ve seen in the movies. Star Trek’s sliding doors require extra wall space to the side that the door can go into. Babylon 5’s rotating doors need even more space in the walls. An iris door (which is really freaking cool on-screen) needs space above, beside and below it in the walls. On the other hand, our current swinging doors don’t require much more space than a door frame. There are some limits on where you can put them, but it seems that there are far fewer limits than on the alternatives.

    So, in summary, swinging doors aren’t going away, and doorknobs are the best means to open them. Oh, and they still work when the power is out. That’s important too.

  43. Forget doorknobs! I want to know why the future imprisons women in jumpsuits? (At least in Star Trek TNG.) Will our anatomy change so much that jumpsuits won’t be the royal pain they are now?
    Also, my grandmother’s 1950’s house had a pocket door – a manually- operated sliding door. We used to play spaceship with it.

  44. For our house we have doorknobs shaped like handles and keyless lock system. we chose handle shaped knobs were because we find them more convenient and the lock system because our kids lost so many house keys that we felt it necessary to move to the keyless system.

  45. I’m pretty sure that making an iris valve that actually gives an airtight seal (or even a seal without a visible hole right in the middle) is challenging if not impossible. But honkin’ great WWII submarine hatches in spaceships just doesn’t convey the feeling. Unless you’re playing Traveller.

  46. Quoth Scalzi: “the keyless fob entry comes with an actual physical key hidden in it, just in case the fob battery dies and you need to get into your car.”

    Unfortunately, if you are able to lock the car with the keyless fob (which activates the anti-theft system), and then the battery dies while you’re walking around the mall, so you unlock the car with the actual key, the car’s anti-theft system thinks you’ve broken in and locks out the ignition. (At least on the 1999 VW Golf that my mom drives…)

    There is a way around this that involves some combination of re-locking the car manually and unlocking it manually and, I think, shift-double-clicking on the check engine light or some such.

  47. Disabled people need sliding doors! Trying to open a door from a wheelchair is a right pain.

    Irising doors though – those are just silly. People would always be either tripping over the bottom bit or banging their head on the top bit because they were in too much of a hurry to wait for the entire sequence to finish.

  48. Agree with you that from now on science fiction is unlikely to incorporate dorknobless automatic doors, but for a different reason: we have them now. Today. At Walmart. Automatic doors are no longer a reliable cue to readers that they are in The Future. Writers and other creative types in all genres always need subtle cues to indicate setting, but those in the Sci Fi genre have a challenge that the others don’t: the goalposts for what counts as The Future shift over time. Doornobs are just one example of this.

  49. My interior doors have door knobs from about 1918 when the house was built. my exterior door has an electronic number combination that can also be locked and unlocked with a phone app from anywhere. I can also pop the latch with a press of a bottom on my phone using the app that cracks open the door so I can do that from my car if I have things to carry in.

  50. “Power doors” make a lot of sense on spaceships, where you want to be able to close all doors centrally in case of a blowout.

    Now, the virtually telepathic doors of Star Trek, that would be quite a trick.

  51. Also, depending on their speed, almost any opening modality is practical– an iris that opened in the blink of an eye isn’t going to trip anybody.

  52. My inlaws replaced most of their interior doors with the handle-type knobs. My MIL is severely arthritic in both hands, and the standard doorknob is too difficult for her to turn. The handle-type knob also has the advantage that, if your hands are wet or dirty (or full, as others have pointed out), they’re much easier to open than a standard knobbed door is.

  53. I take it that we are using ‘door handle’ to refer to the handles that go on doors that have the same basic mechanism as doors with knobs. Such handles usually are longer than the radius of a door knob, so it is easier to apply more torque. I think they are pretty much the norm in developments oriented toward older people. I expect to see more of them as America greys. I suppose it also makes it easier for a determined dog, though I’ve heard that many polydactyl cats can open doors with knobs, with a bit of practice.

    Pocket panel doors can be more space efficient in tight quarters but you can’t run wires, cables, light switches, very easily in the space where the door slides. Be careful when you hang pictures or you could end up spiking a pocket panel door open or closed.

  54. Another drawback to sliding/irising doors: they’re largely unsuitable for secondary function as bulletin board or showcase. Any advantages wrt space efficiency are moot if you’re forced to acquire a second refrigerator in order to display that x/kid/cat/dog picture, newspaper clipping, or proclamations from the Desk of the Clueless the Manager.

    (Actually, those in the last category ought to be stuck on iris-style doors: dilate, contract, shreddination complete. Repeat for remaining missives.)

  55. I think you can make irises without central holes; you put in a small round knob on the end of one petal, and everything else rests up against that. I also think you can probably seal them against pressure ok. Not “external hatch” grade ok, but “oops, we depressurized Compartment 12 and need to not leak too much into it while we patch the wall” ok. I think the real problems with irises is that they take up a lot of space in all directions around the hatch, will be maintenance intensive (more seal area involved, more mechanical contact area, etc), and are heavy.

    Also regarding dogs figuring out doorknobs – we had a now-deceased older cat who figured out doorknobs and taught the next cat along how to actuate them as well, though the knowledge didn’t persist in the newer ones. Also, how to open and close rotary deadbolts. That’s led to my wife being locked out of the main house in the garage a few times…

    Also once, a long long time ago, had a pig who could open sliding doors.

  56. I have to call out those saying door knobs will disappear due to spread of infection. Let’s put this in perspective. We live in the single most germophobic generation of the past 100 years, and I say this as the son of a parents who lived through the last major polio outbreak. These days, people get so stupid about germs that I want to sneeze into my bare hand and wipe it off on their shirts just to teach them a lesson. Our attitudes toward the spread of infectious diseases might be better educated than that of the Black Plague Era, but unfortunately, it’s also equally irrational.

    Besides, germophobes, the rest of us would like it if you’d clean up after yourselves in public restrooms. You’re not going to die of the mutant superflu from The Stand if you bother to clean up. There’s a perfectly good sink, towel dispenser, and hand dryer you can use to clean those germs off that you’re always leaving for the rest off us to clean up.

    Future generations will look at us as not all that bright, and our germophobia is a major reason why.

  57. EvilJwinter –

    We have a fear of rapid pandemic that is justified due to vastly increased local and global connectivity. People you will be in contact with every day flew in from other parts of the globe in the last couple of days, if you live in major metro areas, and were sitting in close proximity to hundreds of others for ten plus hours probably. Buses, trains, subways, etc. “The Flu” became a major pandemic problem because of global transportation, though it did rarely spread worldwide on particularly bad or unlucky decades.

    We would probably get some warning and be able to switch to a more proactively germophobic mode of contact before something got superactive worldwide, but that depends whether the bug has a longer incubation period (time after infection before clinically evident) or latency period (time after infection before infected can transmit to others). There have been and still are some long-incubation short-latency bugs. That’s really everyone’s pandemic nightmare, unlikely as it is to become real.

    It’s possible to understand this and not walk around with gloves on, preventively using hand sanitizer every 5 minutes, etc. But there are some real risks out there. These are not unpredictable events, they’re just rare and unlikely, and questionably worth being lifestyle-affecting-paranoid about (versus aware and slightly vigilant).

  58. The overuse of the “future detail” can truly annoy. I recall a book (I’ll leave the author’s name out), where every instance of throwing something away was mentioned as it going into “the trash-zap” and all the cars and trucks were “float-cars” and “float-trucks.” I don’t believe English-speaking people would do that, it would revert to “trash, cars and trucks” in a trice.

    Now if you want to say, “He wadded up the paper and it sizzled as it hit the disposer in the trash can,” once, that’s fine. Saying, “the car floated down to the rooftop,” is also fine.

  59. Not to be too picky or anything, but in most cases a key fob for your car is not the same thing as a doorknob. It is the same thing as the door key. All the fob does is unlock the car. You still have to grasp the door handle and pull the door open.

  60. Reminds me of a bit from Firefly:

    Wash: [about River] Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science-fiction.
    Zoë: We live in a spaceship, dear.
    Wash: So?

  61. Any use of automatic doors in private residences will probably last until someone thinks the ‘syrius cybernetic corporation’ is a good example to follow.

    (Sorry John, too much of a fight with wordpress)

  62. Is this how a door would iris, like a camera lens aperture?
    That looks hard to pressure seal.

    I think a nice example of a film set in the future where everything isn’t relentlessly futuristic is the 1999 film, Bicentennial Man. The house is a house, but there are metal robots wandering around. Teenagers still find outlandish ways to dress.

    My car has a key-less lock & ignition. The car door doesn’t unlock unless you push the unlock button on the fob, or you stand close to the car and push the button on the door handle. There is a key hidden inside the fob that can open the keyhole lock on the door. Inside the car there is a button to start the engine. The button normally works as long as the fob is inside the car. If the fob’s battery is depleted, there is a socket into which you can insert the key fob to start the car.

    I initially made fun of the ridiculously high tech key fob but I have grown to like not having to take keys out of my pocket when I’m in the car. It was a standard feature. I suppose if they had priced as a separate option I would have been wise to reconsider how much it was really worth to me.

  63. Mike – There are a bunch of ways to do irises; camera lenses use one with overlapping leaves, but there’s an alternative with spiraled solid segments that only touch edge to edge, not overlap. Camera lens iris goes out of plane, solid one stays all in same plane. One can seal the edges of an in-plane iris (or put expanding seals into grooves in one edge, or so forth).

    This is sort of hypothetical, I design real manned and unmanned space vehicles part-time (although not ones that have been flown yet) and wouldn’t use this hatch type for anything I can think of. It’s just a thought experiment, driven slightly by decades of Traveller roleplaying and the desire to solve hard technical problems just to see if it can be done, even if it’s not practically useful…

  64. As just one example of how what is familiar or standard in one culture can seem strange and new through the eyes of another and to take the doorknobs/door handles debate a bit further, it’s worth considering places like Japan, where sliding doors were the historical standard and are still widely used today. And while many Japanese households have a table and chairs and western-style beds, it is also just as common to sit (and sleep) on the floor. So perhaps it’s more of a question of what is likely to appear futuristic to a particular audience.

    As another example, there’s a scene in one of the “Cowboy Bebop” episodes where the interior design of a room is a spitting image of the living room from architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, which was built in 1909. I don’t think it was used in that scene as a historical throwback, but rather because it looked like it was FROM THE FUTURE.

  65. NPR had a story a few months back about technology, and the fact that technologies which were once successful never really go away – someone somewhere will continue to use them (generally the Amish for older technologies hereabouts).

    Something you said brings back memories of different times though: reaching across the passenger seat and and hand-cranking the passenger-side window while driving at speed on the highway … Is talking on a cell phone while driving really worse than that?

  66. @George Herbert Oh, absolutely, there’s reason to be concerned. But some people seem to think that there was a magical time – the 1980’s perhaps – when you could scratch inside your pants and still run the grill at McDonald’s, but now, all of the sudden, we are using hand sanitizer every five minutes, overuse of which, incidentally, makes drug-resistant germs more likely.

    I will grant that we’re probably smart enough not to blame cats for the next bubonic plague outbreak. But the level of paranoia of people standing NEXT TO A SINK WITH SOAP AND HAND SANITIZER IN VIEW drives me insane. “Ew! I had to dump the K cups! I could get, like, germs!” “Did you notice the soap and water about three feet to your left?”

    And then you watch these people eat. That’s when my fears about germs surface.

  67. I would pay extra t.o have a car again where I could roll down the window without a key. Electric windows were a really dumb idea in my opinion.

  68. As John notes, the ballpoint applicator is — contrary to Holocaust deniers — 19th-century tech. However, the low-flow ink mixture combined with the ballpoint that was patented by the Biro brothers in 1938 was a 20th century tech innovation.

    [I shall not attempt here to reproduce the torturous logic by anti-Semites who link the postwar commercial success of the ballpoint to the implied lie of the Holocaust.]

    As a student of technology history, particularly medical technology, I often wondered as a child about the spate of “No Spitting” signs found in B&W movies. A little research yielded that these were a legacy of Pre-WWII Public Health measures to stem the spread of TB. With the recent rise of fully-drug-resistant TB coupled with pervasive bad manners, we may soon see their return. After all, there are already HIV-prompted laws on the books entered in the past couple of decades making it a potential life-sentence to deliberately contaminate a law enforcement officer with bodily fluids.


  69. Amtrak cars have door-knob-less doors. I dread the future if it is as plagued with troubles as Amtrak and its sliding doors.

  70. Cindy said: “Forget doorknobs! I want to know why the future imprisons women in jumpsuits? (At least in Star Trek TNG.) Will our anatomy change so much that jumpsuits won’t be the royal pain they are now?”

    Cindy, in the future all that time consuming micturation will be eliminated by nanobots that expel the (to be technical) “goop” once a day on the chosen schedule of the person, thus making jump suits eminently practical. This is why the Enterprise D only needed one restroom.

  71. Here’s what’s weird to me about the current state of past/present/future technology. I recently heard that the original Sony Walkman retailed for $200 when introduced in 1979. My kid has a 16Gb iPod Touch that cost $200. Think about the contrast in these two pieces of consumer hardware (and the difference in the value of $200).

    There’s nothing else in the world- except the Internet, maybe- that has kept up with this same blistering pace of advancement. It’s like we’re spending all of our innovation into iWhatevers and ignoring all of the big, really world-changing advancements that we could be making instead. Where’s my flying car, dammit?

  72. I agree with Lanta about the implausible pseudo-future art direction of sf movies that are solely full of “futuristic” glass towers and have no older buildings (though on the other hand places like Shanghai and Dubai seem have changed out of all recognition in recent years). 1970s art-directed ideas of the future can look more dated than if the film-makers had set their films in natural contemporary settings.

    I live in a village which was once a landholding owned by the top-famous 9thC Saxon king of Wessex, Alfred the Great. Here we are in the 21stC and it is still full of old buildings, though not 9thC-old. Next to the church, which has some 12thC bits remaining, is a pub, The George, whose lower bar is about 550 years old (it’s so lower its cellar is up some stairs!). One of the regulars is a British Airways 747 captain who is often in on a Saturday afternoon. In the week in between he has taken a few hundred people to Lagos or Cape Town or San Francisco or Hong Kong in a massive flying computer in what still seems like a very futuristic sf fashion to me (even though my father was a 1940s/70s-era airline pilot). He drinks pints of real ale poured direct from a barrel on the wall (not even mechanically pumped, let alone electrically) in the same place and in the same sort of way country squires and farmworkers would have back in the early 18thC.No miniature beer pill for him. (And probably he has to use a doorknob to get into his hi-tech cockpit, come to think of it).

    As well as doorknobs and old buildings, I like paper and pencil/pen as something that doesn’t really date in the way that phones, especially cell-phones, do. So, I guess things that have already looked largely the same for decades or centuries, like chairs or doors or boots, don’t date in the way that things with fast development do, like cell phones and computers.

  73. Honestly, the question all this raises to me is….what did doors use prior to the doorknob/door handle…and by that I mean to secure/hold the door. I know locks obviously were used and door-pulls…but what kept the doors closed? Just a tight fit?

    The thought that it didn’t enter regular use until after 1838 or so is kind of astounding to me.

  74. I don’t see doorknobs going anywhere, because I also don’t see the need to completely demolish and renovate every building and home in the world. Also there is the whole if it works well and is reasonably cost effective it doesn’t make sense to eliminate it. But a door opening on its own is visually appealing and why we’ll see many more films and shows where door knobs have been eradicated. Opening your own door is so low tech and middle ages in TV and film land. It works fine everywhere else.

  75. I can’t believe no one’s mentioned the selectively permeable membranes in Catherine Asaro’s Skolian Saga. Or their less probable processors in SF/futurist literature, utility fog. Or you could go the Charlie Stross route and just make every door a wormhole.

    @ Lisa W

    I present you one of my favorite Far Side desk calendar comics.

    I’ve been looking for that thing since the freaking ‘90s!!!

    You. Rock.

    @ Eric RoM

    Now, the virtually telepathic doors of Star Trek, that would be quite a trick.

    Not with a BrainPal ;-)

    @ eviljwinter

    These days, people get so stupid about germs that I want to sneeze into my bare hand and wipe it off on their shirts just to teach them a lesson.

    You realize that for some people, germophobia is a psychological disorder, right? My cousin suffers from extreme OCD. I pointed out to her, but you get sick as often as everyone else. She said she knew it was irrational, but that didn’t stop her from having panic attacks when someone coughs on her. Yet she goes out of her way to keep her phobias from inconveniencing others, which is more than I can say for most people. As someone who has dealt with my own mental issue with even more of a stigma attached, clinical depression, I have a little more sympathy and a bit less contempt than you for victims of mental illness.

    And then you watch these people eat. That’s when my fears about germs surface.

    Americans are slobs. And it has nothing to do with germs. The average person just doesn’t give a rat’s ass if someone else has to clean up their mess. Even people who keep their own nest squared away will often as not become litter bugs the minute someone else has to mop up their crap. The dearth of fundamental courtesy is a testament to just how little most people care about how they treat others.

    @ occasional pedant

    Cindy, in the future all that time consuming micturation will be eliminated by nanobots that expel the (to be technical) “goop” once a day on the chosen schedule of the person, thus making jump suits eminently practical. This is why the Enterprise D only needed one restroom.

    Bladders would get pretty full if they only emptied out once a day. I was rather amused by the Family Guy solution in Road to the Multiverse where one’s accumulated waste is simply teleported to some other universe when nature calls. I assume the destination was called…wait for it…the Shitnerverse!

  76. Real doorknobs work, for the most part, under all conditions. they are low tech, a lot of ills can be treated with a screwdriver or WD40, they are reasonably cheap.

    I work in a high-tech building that HAS sliding glass doors in all the rooms that are high security (we handle a lot of $$$), it is so a security person can see who is coming and going, even though we have to scan our badge to get in.

    These doors need mechanical service several times a year because of a malfunction. (For all I know there is routine service during low employee population times of the day. I’m only there 8 hours during the day, 6-2:30)

    Technology that is easy to maintain can trump fancy things. Just a thought.

  77. Gulliver: “Bladders would get pretty full if they only emptied out once a day.”

    The nanobots distill the H2O out and return it to the system for re-use, so it takes way less space than you think it does.

  78. Response to Duskfire up above: you said “we still live in houses that basically use the same form as 200 years ago”

    I think this statement is wrong in interesting ways. Even leaving aside obvious changes such as electricity, HVAC, appliances and steel beams that change the way that load-bearing components of a house are constructed, there are immense cultural differences between the way houses are built now as opposed to two hundred, or even fifty, years ago. Consider:
    – bathrooms. Especially the notion of a “master bathroom” as distinguished from a “kids’ bathroom” as distinguished from a “guest bathroom”.
    – the kitchen as one of the largest and most commonly-used rooms in the house, as opposed to being a place where only the wife, or the hired help, or other lower-status people would go.
    – whether a special-purpose dining room is necessary.
    – walk-in closets
    – the “open plan” as opposed to having clearly separated rooms for different things
    – the various functions of the garage, beyond automobile storage
    – dedicated laundry areas
    – the lack of servant spaces/butler’s pantries

  79. @ssellis – Emperor Ming probabably mandated that all doors on Mongo be heavy and awkward, just to make everyone miserable.

    @Mike Agreed. Also, the cities in Bicentennial Man showed a wide range of architectural styles from different periods; in at least one scene, craftspeople were restoring a 19th-century church.

  80. Wizardru – latches, I think. Much simpler tech than a doorknob.

    And still in use in lots of places – in the house I grew up in many of the internal doors had latches rather than door handles or doorknobs, and I can think of lots of farm buildings etc which still do.

    I seem to remember that in one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books there is a description of Pa building a log cabin, including making the door & latch, all without any screws, nails or other metal parts. That would have been 1870s, I think, but I doubt the technique had changed much.

  81. I like this post a lot. As it turns out, I’m writing a scene right now where my villain has to break out of a locked room. In honor of this post, I will call the locks Scalzi locks.

  82. I forget which 1970s computer pioneer tells this story, but he was once talking with a colleague about how ridiculously cheap microprocessors were going to get, and that would mean they’d be used in everything just because you could. “What, we’re going to have microprocessors in every doorknob?” Twenty years later the two of them are checking onto a hotel for a conference, using magnetic strip cards to open the microprocessor-controlled doorknobs to their rooms…

    I used to have a computer lab with an airlock. It wasn’t there to keep air in, just to keep electrons from leaking out so spies couldn’t listen in on them, and it had big heavy metal doors. We’d made the mistake of letting the construction people convince us to use the relay-operated motorized door openers, which would keep both doors from opening at once, because otherwise we’d need a 2-foot-long lever handle for each door. After the first time it jammed closed with somebody inside it, we started keeping screwdrivers and socket wrenches in the airlock, and a year or so later, when one employee who was pregnant got stuck in there, we had the relays and motors ripped out and replaced with two-foot-long lever handles, which worked just fine. Leverage is surprisingly reliable :-)