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Oklahoma Journeys

First Parking Meter, 1935

2010-07-17

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This week on Oklahoma Journeys we're talking about something that's a common sight, generally disliked wherever you go, and was involved in sending Cool Hand Luke to prison. It's the parking meter, of course, an Oklahoma City invention, and the topic of this week's Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center Society.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

In the 1930s many large cities around the country were encountering the growing problems of traffic and parking congestion, but it was Oklahoma City who took the lead in finding a solution. In 1933 Carl Magee was Chairman of the Oklahoma City Traffic Committee. The committee sponsored a design contest for students at Oklahoma A & M College in Stillwater. The object was to come up with a workable prototype of what today we call a parking meter. McGee and others felt that the lack of regulated parking was hurting downtown business. In many cases employees who worked downtown took up all the parking spaces, leaving no room for customers or patrons. Cars occupied parking spaces all day every day and sometimes never moved for weeks.

Coming up with a device to regulate parking was complicated in several ways. It had to be vandal and tamper proof, there had to be a way to stop people from using slugs and washers instead of coins, it had to be durable enough to withstand constant use in all types of weather, and it had to be affordable. Utilizing and building upon the winning designs from Oklahoma State, McGee and two engineering faculty members from the college, Gerald Hale and H.B. Theusen, began construction of a working model. A year and a half and several rejected prototypes later, a satisfactory meter emerged and plans for a test installation began.

It was on July 16, 1935, that hundreds of people gathered in the heat and humidity of downtown Oklahoma City to watch 150 of the new meters put into operation. According to local papers initial reactions were not favorable, and newsboys within minutes figured out a way to jam the machines so they would work without using any money. Stores without meters in front began advertising free parking as a gimmick but quickly changed their tune. Business and profit increased significantly for stores located on blocks containing the parking meters, and soon every downtown business demanded meters on their block. The legal issues of making someone pay for parking on a public street were averted by claiming that the money made from the meters actually went to pay for the policing of the parking and not the actual parking itself. A court case contesting the legality of meters was quickly settled in favor of the city. Within months of the initial installation cities around the country were requesting meters beginning a trend that continues to this day.

You can see the original meter and learn more about the history of the parking meter at the Oklahoma History Center, just east of the state capitol on N.E. 23rd Street in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to the collection, preservation, and sharing of our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.