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The story behind retractable fly screens

The story behind retractable fly screens

Whenever you push your retractable fly screens into place, have you ever stopped to think about the groundbreaking technology behind it? 

Being able to protect your family from flies & other insects with the lightest touch is something we have the luxury to take for granted today. There was a time, not as long ago as you might think, when our ancestors either had to put up with these pests or stifle indoors in the heat. 

Cheesecloth window coverings

Fly screens, let alone retractable screens were an unheard-of innovation, so people either kept their doors & windows closed or covered their windows with cheesecloth. Closely resembling gauze, this loosely woven cotton fabric was obviously never meant to be used outside the kitchen, or even for covering the kitchen windows.

Sure, cheesecloth was great for keeping bugs out to some extent & allowing air to circulate, but not so great at letting you see outside, nor at being aesthetically pleasing. Being made of cotton also meant it didn’t last very long & that it wouldn’t take much to rip or tear.

The first wire screens

Weaving metal into fabric or mesh has been traced far back as Ancient Egypt where gold was woven into jewellery. This practice continued down to the Middle Ages when mesh was used for the chain mail worn by knights.

When the kind of wire mesh used for screens started being produced around the 1600s, screens were traditionally made of bronze, copper or brass. Bronze was the sturdiest or longest-wearing option at the time & also one of the most expensive, which meant only the well-to-do could afford to have them installed in their windows & doors.

Screens as we know them today started coming into production in the 1800s, when factories mass produced wire that could be woven into mesh. However effective the mesh was at keeping insects out, attempts to market these early mass-produced screens or “wire cloth” in the 1830s were not successful.

Window screens by Gilbert & Bennett in Connecticut started being sold commercially around the 1860s. This company was a mill that had originally manufactured sieves from horsehair before substituting metal wire for the hair & using specially built looms to weave the mesh.

It was when one of their staff had the idea of painting the wire window screens to keep them from corroding that fly wire screens became a commercial success. Before long, Gilbert & Bennett became the first company to produce galvanised wire cloth, & they would later go on to produce steel wire which was resistant to rust.

Some years later, Bayley & McCluskey patented window screens for trains to keep cinders & sparks out of the passenger cars. This is the same reason metal wire mesh is strongly recommended today for helping to protect Australian homes against bushfire.

It also didn’t take long for wire screens to be appreciated for their role in disease prevention, as not only did the screens keep insects out, but also the illnesses that they carried. 

Installing fly screens protected families from the likes of dengue, Barmah forest virus, Ross river virus, Japanese encephalitis virus, & Murray Valley encephalitis. It was then that fly screens became a necessity rather than a nice-to-have.

By the late 1890s, it was ET Burrowes & Company in Portland that had become the largest producer of screens for windows & doors, even winning an award at a world exposition for their screens.

Screen doors resembling our present-day models started making their appearance around the 1880s & 90s. This was when the Queen Anne architectural style with its wider, single front door replaced the narrower double front doors of the Italianate style. Back then, the frames of the screen doors were made of wood & used the classic “gingerbread” design. 

These screen doors were often primarily for decorative as well as practical purposes. Modern homes going for a retro or vintage look still use these gingerbread screen doors, although now they use hardwood frames to prevent rot, with mortise & tenon construction for durability. They may even use screens made of bronze & other traditional materials for a more authentic look.

The first retractable screens

It wasn’t until the new century came in that retractable screens began to be developed in earnest. Even then, builders still had to be given specific instructions for installing window & door screens because it had yet to become a common or standard building procedure. Oddly enough, these screens weren’t always installed in all the windows of a house, even within the same room.

The earliest patent for retractable screens we know of was filed around 1914 in the US, but interestingly, it would take about another 80 years when retractable screens would come into general use there.

In Australia, German engineer Frank Spork founded what would come to be known as Centor Screens as early as 1951. With its office & factory in Brisbane, Centor started out by building tracks for sliding doors, with the goal of producing “the finest sliding door track available”. Custom-built bearings & precision-ground wheels are the secret behind the screens’ smooth operation.

Centor soon made a name for itself with the reliability & ultra smooth sliding action of its retractable screens. By 1998, the company had patented its modern folding doors, with Australia being the first country to benefit from this design. Centor has also since grown as a family business, with Frank’s grandson, Nigel, now acting as Managing Director. 

The company now has offices in Sydney & Melbourne, offers its range of retractable screens across APAC, & collaborates with architects in the US, UK & Europe. Its retractable fly screens capable of covering large doorways is also a world’s first. Centor’s exclusive load balancing technology makes it possible to open & close its retractable screens with just one finger.

Retractable fly screens today

Retractable fly screens have also gone on to use different kinds of material such as those specially designed for pets & those that completely block light & visibility. They have likewise evolved into several different configurations.

Brio Screens, for instance, offer retractable pleated fly screens which can be used for French doors, bifolding doors & windows, & multi-panel stacking doors. These screens use fibreglass mesh which was first developed for use in window screens around the late 1990s, although fibreglass itself was first invented way back in 1880, & mass produced in the early 1930s.

Brio was established in the 1970s & has its central operations in Melbourne with offices in New Zealand, the US & the UK. It has developed innovative products such as hardware for exterior folding doors distributed on the global market as well as in Australia. 

Zipslide retractable screens uses a top track system with dual wheels developed by Ossie O. The wheels enable the retractable fly screens to roll quietly & smoothly along a bottom track sturdy enough to withstand a vehicle driving over it. The track system is adjustable to keep the mesh from blowing out.

Zipslide is also the only retractable fly screen that can extend up to 6 m for a single screen, & 12 m for a double unit, making it ideal for garages & other areas with large openings. It also comes with a simple locking system to fix screens in place or keep them partially open or closed.

Element retractable fly screens come with a flat mesh clear view design as well as a wide-span, pleated mesh stackable design to prevent accidents caused by someone walking into it. These screens have a low track to guards against stumbling & are practically invisible when retracted into the casement.

Element fly screens are also easily customised to fit into any door system with a required reveal depth of just 32 mm.

Apart from a system that opens & shuts smoothly, the best retractable fly screens today do not slam or jerk but slide in a controlled manner. They also include housing that is compact & stylish, as well as an insect pile in the rails at the top & bottom to make sure crawling as well as flying pests stay out. 

Today’s screens should also have models that may be installed outside as well as in. Bifold screens should likewise be able to open inward as well as outward. 

Fly screens should also be sealed against the weather & be able to withstand winds of about 48 km/h. While they are meant to allow air & light into the house, fly screens should also be able to deflect glare, particularly during the summer.

Being able to retract these fly screens also allows them to last longer than non-retractable or flat screens because it lessens their exposure to direct sunlight & harsh weather. 

The specialised mechanisms built into today’s retractable fly screens also make it advisable for homeowners to leave the installation & any repair or maintenance work to the professionals. They will also be able to advise you as to the best configuration or mesh to suit your home or the needs of your family.

Give your family long-lasting protection against pests while allowing them to enjoy fresh air & sunlight. Check out our selection of retractable fly screens or choose new mesh for your doors or windows, today.

EHi supplies & installs flyscreens, along with a wide range of home improvement products:  Blinds, awnings, security screens, shutters, & grilles.  These products form the focus of our government – backed apprenticeship, which we’ve recently named the Cert iii in BASS G™.