Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The History of Parking Meters

by Terrie Todd

One can easily imagine the necessity that mothered the invention of the first parking meter. Before automobiles became popular, people in cities and towns may have got around on foot and trolley cars. If a horse and carriage were used, they wouldn’t dream of parking it for long periods of time. If they rode horseback, one hitching post could accommodate several horses.

But by the 1920s, enough people were using cars that parking began to become a problem. Finding a spot to leave your car proved a challenge as spots along the street filled. Once a spot was found, drivers dare not move their cars until all their errands were completed, even if that took all day. Retailers began losing customers as drivers would give up and find competing businesses that could provide parking space. City officials everywhere needed to figure out a way to keep traffic rotating. They decided nothing speaks louder than money. Pay to park. Pay even more if you stay too long. No doubt, they quickly saw the potential for extra municipal revenue.

In 1928, Roger W. Babson filed the first patent for a parking meter. The problem was, it was designed to run on power from the battery of the parked vehicle. As this required a connection from the vehicle to the meter, it’s easy to see why the concept did not catch on.

Holger George Thuesen and Gerald A. Hale were engineering professors at Oklahoma State University in 1933 when they were approached by Oklahoma City’s lawyer, newspaper publisher, and civic leader Carl C. Magee. Magee suggested a contest to encourage ideas from students, offering a $160 prize for the best design for a device that weathered the climate, worked consistently, and discouraged vandalism and theft. A separate award of $240 was offered for a working model of a device. In the end, the professors were tasked with the job, based on a prototype idea designed by Magee.

Magee received a patent for the apparatus 85 years ago today, May 24, 1938. That first meter was called the Black Maria, and it was installed on July 16, 1935. You can watch a video of how the public received the meter HERE. Parking meters caught on rapidly across North America and the world. 

This clever device worked like winding a clock and required a service person to wind it occasionally. Once wound, the customer pushed in a coin to buy time. The size of the coin determined how far the “clock” would set when a penny or nickel was pushed in. One nickel bought one hour of time; a penny was good for twenty minutes. This configuration served for over 40 years, with few revisions in the design, such as a double head to cover two adjacent parking spaces. You can view a video demonstrating the mechanics of it HERE

Of course, someone had to monitor the meters, issue tickets when the time had expired, and collect all the coins. While initially performed by police officers, my best guess is that municipalities realized they could save a lot of money by hiring women for the task. Thus, was born the “meter maid.” For three decades, uniformed meter maids doled out tickets, gaining a reputation for heartlessness.

“Meter maid" in Stockholm in 1961, ticketing an illegally parked 
Peugeot 403 Familiale. Photograph by Gunnar Ekelund

Today, most of this work is done by By-law Enforcement officers. In my town, meters have been removed and replaced with free two-hour parking. Equipped with cameras, cars driven by enforcement officers go up and down the streets, snapping photos of license plates that haven’t moved.

Carl Magee died on February 1, 1946 at the age of 73. He is buried in Tulsa.

Sources: Wikipedia, OETA TV, 

In the dead-end Canadian town of Bleak Landing, Irish immigrant Bridget O’Sullivan lives in a shanty
and dreams of another life as the Great Depression rages. Routinely beaten by her father and bullied by schoolmate Victor Harrison, the fiery redhead vows to run away and never return. Desiring to become anyone other than Bridget O’Sullivan, she never dreams the day will come when she must prove that’s exactly who she is—or that the one person who can vouch for her is her old nemesis, Victor. Can he also prove he’s a changed man worthy of her forgiveness and love?

Terrie Todd is the author of award-winning historical and split-time fiction set in Canada where she lives with her husband, Jon. She also writes a weekly “Faith and Humor” column for hometown paper. Her novels include The Silver Suitcase, Maggie’s War, Bleak Landing, Rose Among Thornes, The Last Piece, and Lilly’s Promise. Terrie and Jon have three adult children and are grandparents to five boys.

Follow Terrie here:



Quarterly Newsletter Sign-up