Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2774: HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY ARCHIVES

by Andrew Boyd

Today, travel made easier. The University of Houstonís College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

For me, a walk through an archive is a reverential experience. Libraries contain books about history, but archives contain documents that are history. Access is limited, and entering an archive often feels more like entering a vault than a library wing. Climate control, white gloves, and the smell of aging paper evoke a sense of wonder.

Such was the case during a recent visit to the Hilton College’s Hospitality Industry Archives at the University of Houston. I’d been invited by its curator, Dr. Mark Young, to view items related to hotel innovations.

Hospitality Industry Archives

If in-room coffee makers and curved shower curtain rods come to mind, well, they’re certainly part of story. But many innovations have a distinctly technological bent.

For one, keys. We’re all familiar with the basic house key, which we insert into a lock and turn. But hotels have long been quick to adopt new key technologies. The mid-seventies saw the adoption of plastic keycards, each punched with a unique series of holes. These were later replaced by cards with magnetic stripes. More advanced technologies are constantly being adopted.

Among the many keys I encountered at the archive was an elegant design made by Hilton with an eye toward the “first hotel on the moon.” It was created for marketing purposes, probably around 1968 when the film 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. (The film’s orbiting space station, by the way, featured a Hilton). With space age lines and a wooden overlay, the key still looked like a house key. Even in the sixties we couldn’t imagine what today’s hotel keys would look like.

Lunar Hilton key

Another innovation was reservations technology. Today, hotels keep bookings on computers and display available rooms through a vast electronic distribution network. But not in 1956 when the Hilton Central Reservations Office was touting its latest technology. “Efficiency is the watchword,” read the article in my hands, as reservations are “processed at the snappy pace of 20,000 per month.” Compare that to today’s global distribution systems, which handle that many requests in about four seconds

The article shows women at work in fifties attire — skirts below their knees, a conservative blouse or sweater completing the outfit. Taking phone calls, they face a large mahogany board covering the entire front wall. On it are colored chips that display room availability. Does the Palmer House have space next Friday? The chip on the board is pink, and that means no. “I’m sorry,” says the agent, “but we do have availability at the Conrad Hilton.” It has a white chip next to it.

Hilton reservations

I thanked my host as I stepped from the vault. It had been a wonderful morning. And I realized once again how much technology has altered the world. Not over the centuries, but merely over the course of my lifetime.

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Notes and references:

Special thanks to Mark Young, curator of the Massad Family Research Center and Hospitality Industry Archives, part of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston

E. A. Boyd. The Future of Pricing. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

How Largest Chain Tabs Reservations in Nerve Center. The Hotel Monthly, March, 1956, pp. 29-30.

E. Lauer. Hotel Security: The Evolving Electronic Lock. From the website: http://www.hotel-online.com/News/PressReleases1999_2nd/Apr99_ElectronicLocks.html. Accessed February 28, 2012.

All pictures are courtesy of the Massad Family Research Center and Hospitality Industry Archives. For more information on the archives, see http://www.hrm.uh.edu/RESOURCES/Library-and-Archives-/Hospitality-Industry-Archives/.

This episode was first aired on February 29, 2012



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.