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Who Invented the Parking Meter?

Dozens of small mom-and-pop stores filled every block in downtown commercial and business districts in the 1920s, when few people had cars and the suburbs hadn’t been invented yet. There were few cars on the road back then because they were too expensive for all but a few. Parking your car on those city streets was easy because there were so few cars and so many places to park. Then Henry Ford built his assembly line and started selling his Model Ts. By 1927, he had sold 15 million Ford automobiles, and they all were parked somewhere.

One hundred years ago, parking next to the curb on city streets was free

Free parking spots went quickly each day as office workers and merchants parked on the downtown streets in the morning and left their cars there all day. This made it increasingly difficult for shoppers to find a parking place as more cars and more drivers added to the congestion. Merchants didn’t like losing customers because there was no place for them to park.

Along came a guy who said if cities charged for downtown parking, they would make more money

It would also make more money for merchants because would free up open spaces for more shoppers throughout the day

Carl Magee was the publisher of the The Oklahoma News

His paper sponsored a contest where students at the University of Oklahoma were challenged to build an accurate timing device that would regulate the amount of parking time given for the amount of money paid. This allowed drivers to pay for as much or as little time they wanted.

As the contest judge, Magee chose the winner

It was a device based upon a machine Magee had invented several years earlier, hardly a coincident. Professor Gerald Hale’s entry was impractical, but useful as a jumping-off-point.  Together Hale and Magee built a better device and formed their own company to make and sell their patented Magee-Hale Park-O-Meter. Their specifications were simple. The parking meter must be easy to understand, easy to use, weatherproof, and safe from vandalism.

The first installation was in Oklahoma City, on a street in the middle of the downtown shopping area

It was a metal device that looked like a wind-up clock on a pole stuck in the sidewalk. Someone had to wind each meter every day, and Oklahoma assigned that task to city police. Magee’s crew painted 20-foot spaces on the pavement and set the meters to charge five cents an hour for parking. 

As part of the test design, the meters were installed on only one side of the street

The spaces on the free side were taken first, to no one’s surprise. But those who tired of going round and round (like mall shoppers looking for close-in parking spots at the mall around Christmas) could choose an open place on the other side of the street and pay a nickel an hour to get out of the car and get on with their business. Shoppers might need to park their cars for only an hour or two, so parking spots came open throughout the day.

The test expanded to 175 parking meters spread over fourteen city blocks and the results were the same

Word got around, and more cities bought and installed parking meters of their own. Many citizens were angry at being asked to pay for something that had always been free, but most soon got over it.

Meter Maids

Some people would park in the metered spaces without paying, so municipalities wrote laws allowing them to deal with scofflaws. One gave the police (there were no meter-workers back then) the power to write citations and impose fines.

Cities finally decided that it was a waste of resources having street cops write the tickets, and parking enforcement got its own division

The trend was to hire women. The thinking behind it was people getting tickets might fight with a cop (they were all male then), but not a lady. Most, not all, meter maids are still women. In downtown areas with too many cars and not enough space, meter maids are on foot. In other instances, they ride around in those clunky little three-wheelers.


I don’t think you will find many spring-wound parking meters today, and electric ones are being increasingly being phased out in favor of solar power. 

The money-collecting devices in today’s paid public parking spaces have evolved into digital data-processing boxes that accept cash, credit cards, apps, payment services and more. People will continue to have trouble until the industry reaches uniformity of steps needed, so you don’t have to keep on trying to figure out the next one you come to, much like the how the controls on the gas pump vary in placement, steps required, and nomenclature.

Click here for the Beatles’ Lovely Rita Meter Maid



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