The Story of Parking Meters

The first parking meters in the United States went into use in Oklahoma City in 1935.

expired parking meter

The city grew rapidly in the early 20th century. In 1913, the city had only 3000 drivers, but as people traded in their horses and wagons and bought cars, the numbers grew. By 1930, five hundred thousand cars were registered within the county.

Oklahomans who worked downtown arrived early and took the most convenient street parking for themselves, leaving their cars in one spot all day. As a result, shoppers had difficulty finding places to park.

Like other towns addressing this problem, Oklahoma City tried to control this by marking tires with chalk, Cars that were left in the same space for too long were ticketed. But that was time-intensive and took policemen off their regular beats.

A better solution was needed. That’s how the parking meter came about. (To see a video on the topic scroll to the bottom of the post.)

First Patent

Though the first parking meters were used in Oklahoma City, the first patent for this type of device came from a fellow in the Boston area. Roger W. Babson, who went on to found Babson College, received a patent on his parking timer in 1928. However, Babson’s attention must have been diverted by other issues as he never got around to manufacturing the device.

Carl C. Magee, an Oklahoma newspaperman, was the second person to receive a patent for a parking meter.  But his path to becoming an inventor was circuitous. Magee worked as a newspaperman in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he made important headway on a national story—the bribery scandal involving the Warren Harding administration (known as the Teapot Dome Scandal.)  

parking makes news

Since he made a name for himself in Albuquerque, Magee might have continued to live and work in New Mexico if it hadn’t been for an unfortunate incident. As a reporter, Magee’s stories sometimes angered readers. One day he was walking through a hotel lobby when a man approached and tried to knock him down. Magee pulled out his revolver and fired. Though he intended to shoot at the man who attacked him, he missed and hit a bystander.

The case went to court where a judge acquitted Magee of manslaughter. He was greatly relieved but felt it was time for a fresh start.  In 1927, he moved to Oklahoma City to publish his own newspaper, the Oklahoma News.

As he settled into his new home, Magee became involved in community activities. He was soon appointed chair of the Oklahoma traffic committee. In the meetings, he heard many stories about the city’s problems with traffic congestion as well as parking difficulties faced by shoppers.

Magee Worked On Idea

Magee had an idea for a way to control parking and tinkered with what he thought might be a workable parking timer. In 1932, he built a crude model of a windable device that would establish time limits on parking. As he studied his creation, he knew he needed help from someone with an engineering background.

Carl Magee consulted men from the engineering department at the University of Oklahoma. The professors and Magee all had workloads of their own, so Magee suggested a contest to encourage ideas from students.

The device needed to be easy for consumers to understand and use. It also needed to be weatherproof and safe from vandalism. In 1933, Magee offered a $160 prize for the best design for such a device. A separate award of $240 was offered for a working model of a device.  

But because Carl Magee had a pre-conceived idea of what might work, he quickly saw that the ideas from students weren’t practical.

He returned to the engineering professors, Gerald Hale and Professor H. G. Thuesen. The men tinkered with Magee’s basic idea and came up with what they called the “Black Maria.” 

What Were the First Meters Like?

The first design—the “Black Maria”—worked like a wind-up clock. The car driver put the specified coin (a nickel in the beginning) into the machine and twisted a knob on the meter. The coin dropped in and an hour of parking time showed through the face of the meter.  When the paid-for time elapsed, a flag popped up to indicate that the time expired.

Once a week a city employee walked the route where there were parking meters. Each meter needed to be wound individually in order to function for the following week.

A year later, another Oklahoma City fellow patented his own design for a parking meter. Percy C. Gumm called his company, the Park-O-Later. His device had an hourglass embedded in the mechanism. When the coin dropped into the meter, the hourglass turned over and started timing 60 minutes.

“The device needs to be easy to use and safe from vandalism.”

Carl C. Magee, Inventor

Who Will Make Them?

But Carl Magee, as head of the traffic committee, was able to reach city administrators and get his invention approved more rapidly. He filed for a patent (received in 1938). Then once he got the go-ahead from the city, he organized a consortium of local businessmen to put up money for manufacturing.  They soon incorporated as the Dual Parking Meter Company, later known as the Magee-Hale Park-O-Meter Company.

To manufacture the meter, they turned to the MacNick Company in Tulsa.  MacNick made timing devices used to explode nitroglycerin in oil wells. (The explosion increased the flow of oil or gas as it was coming out.)

Soon MacNick was also manufacturing parking meters.

Public Reaction

On July 16, 1935, 175 meters were installed along fourteen blocks in Oklahoma City.

There were definitely complaints. Drivers felt it was a tax on their right to own an automobile. A few filed lawsuits.

Others decided to make a “day” of the event.  One fellow rode his horse into town, paid a nickel, and tied the horse to the parking meter pole. Four other people arrived with folding chairs and a card table. They set up the table up in the parking space, paid the nickel, and proceeded to enjoy a one-hour bridge game.

When the “meter movement” spread to Sequoyah County, Oklahoma, a lumber company owner wrote in about the parking problem. After stating his belief that the meters were a nuisance, he quotes Englishman Edmund Burke: “The question with me is not whether you have the right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not to your interest to make them happy.”

But despite being irritated, drivers quickly adapted. They discovered that if they were willing to pay a nickel, they could actually find parking. Storekeepers were happy when they saw that customers could shop more easily.

City officials were pleased that fewer cars had to drive around the streets looking for parking, and they also appreciated the revenue. While only a trickle of money came from the parking meter charges, the unpaid parking tickets began to add up to some decent money.

Who Received the First Parking Ticket?

In August of 1935, Reverend C. H. North of Oklahoma City received the first parking ticket ever issued. The new meters were only in place for about a month, so people were probably not in the habit of paying attention to needing to “feed” a meter. 

Parking ticket

What’s more, North was a minister. He argued in court that he had stopped for only a minute to run into a store and get change.  The judge kindly dismissed his case.

Other Cities Followed

As a result, parking meters were an invention that were soon being used in cities across the nation. By the early 1940s, there were more than 140,000 parking meters across the U.S. Magee-Hale, Dual Parking Meter Co, Mark-Time, and Duncan Miller were all manufacturing them.

Cop writes ticket
Police officer issues ticket.

Surprisingly, meters were not introduced in New York City until 1951. Perhaps people were taking public transportation.

Manufacturers Entered the Market

Other companies besides the Dual Park-O-Meter company in Oklahoma City began manufacturing parking meters. The Mark-Time Parking Meter Company operated from Hartford, Connecticut. This company improved on Magee’s design because the Mark-Time meters could absorb the power they needed through the winding done by the driver. (No weekly winding by a serviceman was required.)

For the next 40-50 years, not much changed in parking meter design. Manufacturers created the two-headed model so that cities could monitor two parking places with the installation one pole with a dual meter attached.

Parking Meters Today

Many advances have been made as to how parking meters work. Most meters are now digital, making them easier to monitor and service from a central location.

zone parking
This machine permits drivers to pay for any space within the parking zone.

Those that are still mounted on poles along streets usually take credit cards as well as coins. Many towns also have multispacer meters. Within a large parking lot, there will be one machine where drivers go to pay for parking. They then receive a “paid” ticket that they may have to display on their dashboard.

Today many cities have parking meter apps. Once you find a parking space in one of the “app zones,” you enter the number where you are parking, specify the time you need for parking, and pay through your phone. The app will remind you near the time of expiration. You can also extend time via the app. Some apps also let you reserve a space. This is helpful particularly if you are attending a major event.

Though Magee’s original device changed greatly, there is still a strong need for regulating parking. For that reason, parking meters will continue to exist for a long time.

Meter Maids

Parking tickets were initially given out by police officers. Towns found there were two problems with this—the responsibility took police away from more important tasks, and with a mostly-male police force, angry drivers were more likely to punch or scream at the officers. 

St. Paul meter maid standing by her scooter.

New York was the first city to decide to have specialized employees. They also made the specific decision to hire women for the job, thinking that drivers might then “mind their manners.” With this, the job of “meter maid” was born. (In some cities like Las Vegas, the city administrators decided that scantily clad women would be less likely to be punched or knocked down. Today the “uniforms” these women were forced to wear would not be well received.)

Meter Maids in Grand Junction

In 1974, the Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, Colorado, printed an article about a meter maid’s day. At that time, the town had two meter maids, so the streets were divided into two districts.

When the women arrived at the precinct, they prepared the top portion of several tickets. That way, if a driver arrived when a ticket was being written, the meter maid was well on her way to completing the ticket. This made it harder to argue with the women. The women averaged 60-70 tickets each day.

In most towns, meter maids were courteous and could offer directions or answer questions about the town. Grand Junction took this role an extra mile. If an out-of-town car was parked illegally or in an expired meter, the meter maid left a note that began, “Welcome neighbor.” The page then listed some of the top visitor attractions in Grand Junction.

The final paragraph read: By the way, your meter has expired, but we’ll forgive you this time.”  Visitors reacted positively to this, but if the same car was found at an expired meter more than once, a real ticket was issued.

The Story Told Simply

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2 thoughts on “The Story of Parking Meters”

  1. Neither did I until I started the research. Who would have guessed, but what a great story!

    Thanks for posting.

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