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85 years parking meter

Drawing from US2118318

US2118318, apllied for on May 13, 1935

Patent for the "penny grave“

Is this a reason to celebrate at all? This "jubilarian" is certainly not one of the most popular inventions of all time: the parking meter. 85 years ago, on 13 May 1935, Carlton Cole Magee applied for a patent in the USA for the "Coin controlled parking meter" ( pdf-Datei US2118388A (1,16 MB)). Since then, the "penny grave" and its modern successors have annoyed motorists worldwide.

Magee (1872-1946) actually worked as a lawyer and publisher, but was also active in local politics and chaired the Oklahoma City Transportation Committee in the 1930s. Permanent parkers blocking the limited space in front of downtown shops had apparently been a thorn in his side for quite some time. Even before his 1935 patent for the first coin-operated parking meter, he had spent years tinkering with devices to limit parking time.

Letterbox as a visual model

Kienzle parking meters in Switzerland

Kienzle parking meters in Switzerland

Already in 1932 Magee applied for a patent for a "Parking meter" ( pdf-Datei US2039544A). This device, which resembled typical American mailboxes on the outside, also worked with a coin slot. However, it only indicated whether the parking space was paid for or not, a time display was missing; it was a parking meter without a meter, so to speak.

One year later, Magee again applied for a patent: "Parking device" ( pdf-Datei US2088300A), a further development which, among other things, provided a more clearly visible "Paid" indicator (again similar to that on US letterboxes), but still could not provide a display of the remaining parking time.

In early 1936, he applied for a patent for a "face plate", an exchangeable and adjustable plate for parking meters, which provided information on maximum parking time and fees ( pdf-Datei US2088301A).

"Black Maria" annoys motorists

Drawing from US2039544

US2039544

Already filed on May 13, 1935, but not granted until May 24, 1938, the patent for the mother of all parking meters that would later conquer all the busy cities of the world was granted( pdf-Datei US2118388A (1,16 MB)): a mechanical coin-operated meter on a stable column that could also survive contact with the bumper of a parking car. Magee didn't wait for the patent to be granted, but instead managed to get the first parking meters installed in Oklahoma City as early as July 16, 1935. "Black Maria" he called them.

It is not surprising that Oklahoma's motorists were not very enthusiastic about the innovation and for a long time more or less massively resisted it (damage is said to have occurred). But it didn't help them: the "Black Marias" didn't just stay, they also spread rapidly.

The parking meter conquers Europe

Drawing from US21183182

US21183182

After the war the parking meters also became (un-)popular in Europe. Basel made a start in 1952. With the massive increase in city traffic in the mid-1950s, parking meters finally came to Germany. Duisburg was the first city to install twenty "Parkographs" on 4 January 1954. Here, too, they met with little approval from the very beginning. There were angry protests, even lawsuits. A change in the road traffic regulations legalized the parking fees retroactively in 1956.

The local authorities had discovered a new source of money. They owe considerable income to the steadily expanding "parking management" - today more than ever. The once rather symbolic parking fees have long since become a real cost factor, which makes many motorists prefer to use public transport on their way to the city centres. In this respect, Magee's invention makes a contribution to environmental protection, so to speak.

Parking meter, maids & pop

Drawing from US21183182

Drawing from US21183182

With the triumphant advance of the parking meter, a completely new profession developed, the traffic warden or parking attendant. Initially mostly practised by women, parking meter attendants were called "meter maids" in the USA and "Politesse" in Germany. Both soon found their way into pop culture as an inseparable team.

Literature Nobel Prize winner Peter Handke transformed his first encounter with a parking meter into poetry:
"1966/in bayreuth/before a performance of the opera "tristan und isolde"/I put/on a parking lot/for the first time/a coin/a parking automat/: that was a new experience for me/and because it is said/that one is proud of new experiences/I was proud/of the new experience".

Another later Nobel Prize winner for literature, Bob Dylan, rhymed the immortal line "Don't follow leaders / watch the parking meters" (from "Subterranean Homesick Blues"). The Beatles dedicated an entire song to "Lovely Rita, meter maid" on the legendary "Sgt. Pepper" album.
And in Germany Herbert Grönemeyer sang about the frustration of the parking space searcher like this:
"I've been driving for hours / I've been making my rounds here / I can't find a parking space (...) / And I have to keep on looking / There are meter maids at every corner / Lurking like panthers / Ready to jump / You can't park here / You can forget that..." (from „Mambo“).

Today more or less extinct

US21183182

US21183182

Analogous to the global spread of parking meters, many new parking meter patents were applied for in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as can be seen from the DEPATISnet database (for example "Self-Collecting Rental Meter", pdf-Datei DE1474805 (1,16 MB)). From 1978 on, there were the first patents for 'modern' parkographs like "Electronic Parking Meter with Digital Display" ( pdf-Datei DE2812272A1). A visionary patent for a parking meter with charging connection for electric cars was already applied for in 1991 ( pdf-Datei DE4101053A1). In recent years, however, there have been hardly any applications in this field (see e.g. "Automatic Parking Clock", pdf-Datei DE102011105832A1).

The changeover to the Euro coins in 2002 put an end to the old parking meters in Germany: City councils almost everywhere switched on to modern parking ticket machines, at which today it is partly possible to pay without cash or by mobile phone. Magee's classic parking meter has largely disappeared from our townscape after 85 years. But her "grandchildren" continue to collect money from the parkers.

Pictures: DEPATISnet, Whgler CC BY-SA Creative Commons 4.0 via Wikimedia

Last updated: 8 July 2020 

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