Who invented the cat flap? An alternative question would be: “Did Sir Isaac Newton invent the cat flap?”
The second question is asked because it is often stated that Isaac Newton did, indeed, invent the cat flap. And he lived between 1642 and 1726. I have a page which mentions Sir Isaac Newton’s cat door or cat hole because there wasn’t an actual flap. All the early cat flaps were simply holes cut into the lower part of an external door.
Apparently, there’s no hard evidence that Sir Isaac did indeed have a cat door and Newton’s biographer Richard S Westfall noted that there are no contemporary records indicating that Newton kept pets. Sir Isaac Newton had rooms at the University of Cambridge. There is a picture of a cat hole in a door. However, there is no hard evidence that this is the door to Sir Isaac Newton’s rooms at the University of Cambridge. We have to be careful. I can’t find a current photo online of the plugged cat holes on Newton’s door. You’d think there’d be one.
It seems that the story about Sir Isaac Newton inventing the cat door comes from a memoir published in 1827, well after his death, by a man called John Martin Frederick Wright who wrote: Alma Mater: Or Seven Years at the University of Cambridge.
Wright doesn’t actually say that Newton invented the cat door but that he had a female cat and then later a kitten. He wrote that Newton “issued orders to the college carpenter to make two holes in the door, one for the cat and the other for the kitten”. He added that “whether this account is true or false, indisputably there are in the door to this day two plug holes of proper dimension for the respective egress is of a cat and a kitten” (as mentioned, I can’t find a photo of this today which is strange considering how famous they are). He wasn’t sure, then, of the history. It appears to have almost become fact having been passed around the Internet.
It seems certain that Newton did not invent the cat flap because there’s some fairly good historical evidence of earlier ‘cat flaps’. I should say ‘cat holes’ because “cat flaps” is misleading as it indicates that these early versions had flaps which they didn’t.
Perhaps the earliest cat flap dates from the mid-15th century i.e. 1400s. You can see it (is it a cat hole?) in a framed painting of Madonna (see picture heading this page). It’s a life-sized painting which used to be a door or it is a painting on a board that was attached to a door. Whatever the case, as you can see in the photograph, there is a hole at the bottom-right hand side of the painting. It is believed that this small hole was cut to allow a cat in and out of a church’s sacristy. The painting is called the Madonna della Gattaiola (“Our Lady of the Cat Door”).
I must say that the hole is tiny. The cat must’ve been very small and it is too high off the ground to be a practical “cat flap”. I’m currently unconvinced that this is actually the earliest version of the cat flap.
Apparently, too, this kind of hole in an external door is referred to in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale from Canterbury Tales of the 14th century.
About 10 years ago I researched the earliest cat flap in existence. I decided that the earliest cat flap can be dated back to around 1600 or the early 1600s. It is below a famous astronomical clock in Exeter Cathedral, UK (see photo above). The cathedral at that time had a resident cat to deter mice which were attracted to the clock’s mechanism which was oiled with animal fat. If you want to read more about that then please click on this link.
My current thinking is that the earliest cat flap is the one that Exeter Cathedral which is still there. We don’t know who decided to create that piece of iconic feline history. Perhaps it was the Dean of the Cathedral or some other employee.
Postscript: Dr. Desmond Morris in his extensive work Cat World confidently states that Isaac Newton invented the cat flap. In his particularly charming writing style, he says that “no less a person than Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest natural philosopher of all time, considered the dilemma that faces pet cats and, mindful of their comfort, promptly came up with the answer – a small cat-door set within the larger, human one.”
If Sir Isaac did create the first cat flap, he is lampooned by some people for the fact that he created a second smaller version for a kitten when there was no need for it. Interestingly, Dr. Morris defends so Isaac Newton by saying that a kitten wouldn’t have the strength to push open the larger flap. But the truth of the matter is that there was no flap, just a hole as I understand it.