parties, shopping trips and visiting family make for a busy few
weeks filled with numerous First World annoyances. From clogged
arteries, draconian speed limits, and overzealous speed enforcement
to usurious tolls, broken parking meters and endless traffic lights,
it’s enough to turn anyone into the Grinch. But these problems are
as almost as old as the holidays we celebrate. In fact, your
misfortune is far from unique. Your ancestors suffered too.
Take a look.
roads: No one likes paying a fee to drive on a road, but you’re
far from the first one to grumble about it. Actually, the first ones
used the toll road that ran between Babylon and Syria around 2000
B.C. and were run by the Persian military. In the United States,
Virginia built the first turnpike, a word that derives its name from
the tollgate made of wooden spears known as pikes. Early turnpikes
were privately run and poorly maintained, causing many to call for
the government to step in. By the 1930s, it had.
accidents: The first car accident occurred when the first
self-propelled vehicle was launched in 1769. Built by a French army
engineer, Capt. Nicolas Cugnot, the "fardier a vapeur" was
powered by steam and weighed more then two tons. Despite its huge
front-mounted boiler, Power ran for only 15 minutes at speeds of up
to 2 mph. Nevertheless, Cugnot had overlooked a crucial item:
brakes. The car came to rest only after plowing through a wall.
limits: Great Britain established the first speed limit in 1861
––10 mph. In the U.S., speed limits were mandated by state or
local governments until 1973, when Congress authorized the U.S.
Department of Transportation to withhold highway funds from states
that did not adopt a maximum 55 mph speed limit on interstates. By
1974, 55 mph double nickel was the America’s top legal speed, and
remained that way until 1987, when Congress allowed states to
increase speed limits on rural interstates to 65 mph. Six years
later, The National Highway System Designation Act allowed states to
again set their own limits once.
Tunnels: While tunnels are almost old as mankind, they weren’t
common until the rise of railroads in the 19th century. The first
one to pass under water was built under the River Thames in London.
And if you think your municipal works department is slow at getting
work done, consider that the Thames tunnel was started in 1825, and
completed in 1843 — 18 years later.
If you’ve been stopped for speeding, thank the radar gun. American
physicists are credited with to developing the first practical use
of radar in 1925. World War II brought radar into common use for
tracking planes, which led to its adoption by police department in
the early 1950s. But radar’s accuracy was debated and more than a
few speeders used this to their advantage until the introduction of
lidar in the 1990s. Lidar can pinpoint a car’s speed within a
fraction of a second using a beam of light, leaving leadfoots with
little hope of escaping a ticket.
signals: At the dawn of the automobile age, large cities controlled
traffic with cops perched in 15-foot traffic towers, who manually
operated semaphores. But given the number of intersections in a
city, manually operating signals wasn’t the best use of police
officers. In 1920, Detroit police inspector William L. Potts solved
the problem by installing the first three-color, automatic four-way
traffic light at the intersection of Michigan and Woodward avenues.
No word on how long it took before a motorist ran the red light.
meters: Carl Magee, founder of The Oklahoma News, and a member of
the Chamber of Commerce’s traffic committee, was charged with
solving the city’s parking problem. His solution? The parking
meter. Working with Oklahoma State University engineering students,
the idea was perfected and the city installed 175 meters by July
1935. An hour’s parking cost 5 cents. Magee joined a group of
investors to form the Dual Parking Meter Co., manufacturer of the
Park-O-Meter. So if you hate feeding the meter, just blame the