Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

“Did Isaac Newton invent the cat door?”

During a recent bout of Family Togetherness While Reading Different Books time, The Ten-Year-Old found her mind blown by a passage in Amazing Cat Facts & Trivia. “Whoa. Guys, it says here that Isaac Newton invented the cat door.”

Daddyo, setting aside his copy of Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs: “He did? I knew there was a reason I liked that guy.”

The Ten-Year-Old: “Besides all the physics.”

For once the suspicious one, I set aside my copy of Lucy Ribchester’s The Hourglass Factory and surreptitiously double-checked the story on my iPhone.

Did Isaac Newton invent the cat door? 

Newton’s ideas changed the world for the better in many ways, but the cat door wasn’t one of them.

According to Cecil Adams of the Straight Dope, the idea of cutting a smaller hole in a door to allow a pet through predates Newton by centuries. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales mentions a cat door in “The Miller’s Tale.” The Tales were written in the late 1300s, some 300 years before Newton may or may not have drilled a hole in his door at Trinity College in Cambridge for the convenience of his hypothetical cat.

Frankly, when you think about it, it does seem very odd that a scientist of Newton’s caliber would be willing to risk the results of his experiments on light diffraction to the random entrance and exit impulses of a clowder of cats. It seems much more likely to me that Newton is the reason those holes are plugged up today, and not the person who brought them into being in the first place.

So where does this story come from? 

Isaac Newton not only didn’t invent the cat door, there’s very little evidence that he had a cat at all. The entire story is based on those two holes in Newton’s old door. They are apparently just the right size and in just the right place for use by a cat and her kittens.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that someone came for a tour years after Newton’s residency at Trinity, saw the holes, made some sort of joke about Newton inventing the cat door, and someone else enshrined the joke in history.

Which raises the question: How do I break the news that Newton didn’t care all that much about cats to The Ten-Year-Old?

Would discovering that Newton didn’t care about cats encourage The Ten-Year-Old to not care about Newton?

What was a curious parent to do? “Um, guys, hypothetically speaking, if I were to discover that this is only an urban legend, would you want me to tell you?”

“Always” was the immediate reply. Based on the glare The Ten-Year-Old gave me, she was disappointed I even asked.

Still, I was unwilling to prejudice her opinion of Newton based solely on the shady rumor that he may not have been a fellow cat-lover. So I simply told her about the cat door in The Canterbury Tales. She didn’t believe me, so I looked it up. Here’s the relevant passage from “The Miller’s Tale”, courtesy of SparkNotes:

But al for noght, he herde nat a word;
An hole he fond, ful lowe upon a bord,
Ther as the cat was wont in for to crepe;
And at that hole he looked in ful depe,
And at the laste he hadde of him a sighte.
Isn’t it amazing how different English looks now? I mean really, Chaucer is a formative figure in English literature, but seven centuries on, I still kind of want a translator. In case you do too, I’ll just quickly update some of the spelling:

But all for naught, he heard not a word;
A hole he found, full low upon a board,
There as the cat was wont in for to creep;
And at that hole he looked in full deep,
And at the last he had of him a sight.

“So who did invent the cat door, Mommyo?”

Hard to say. It’s possible that the first cat doors evolved in the same way mouse holes do. A chink develops in your building’s armor, and the local beasties just start using it. The wording in “The Miller’s Tale” is ambiguous with respect to the cat door’s origin, and my Google search results are clogged with Isaac Newton myths.

A trip to our local library may be required to figure this one out. If we can at all. One of the reasons Chaucer stands out is that not very many people were writing things down in the 1300s. Finding documented evidence of cat doors that predate The Canterbury Tales is going to be a bit of a challenge.

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