Today, Houston's traffic in 1924. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
I was recently given a report
that'd oddly turned up in some old files at Cooper
Industries. It'd been prepared for the city of Houston by
a traffic-light salesman in 1924. It begins like this:
In any growing city of [over] 50,000 ... certain
traffic practices [are] the outgrowth of a course of
least resistance [from days] when little attention was
paid to how fast a man's horses were driven or how he
tied up at the ... hitching rack.
He goes on to point out that downtown Houston traffic has
become a mess. Greater Houston would eventually grow to
4.3 million people -- some thirty times the 1924
population. And, while our present traffic is bad, it's
easier to get around now than it was then.
The salesman sees why we had traffic problems. We'd
expected to have the same freedom of mobility that we'd
had on horseback. He includes nineteen wonderful old
photos of downtown traffic. They provide a perfect time
capsule of an age just beyond the horse and buggy; yet
not one horse remains in the pictures.
Electric trolleys had come to Houston 1891, long before
the automobile, and they appear in almost every picture.
But cars and trucks now clutter the streets, threading
their way through the rows of trolleys.
Americans certainly intended cars to be the new agents of
free mobility. And, at first, we used them with cowboy
indifference to the need of a high-density population.
The pictures show them parked both parallel and
perpendicular to curbs. They're double parked, they're
parked at an angle, they even sit on sidewalks. Anyone
"in the know" had a police courtesy card. And you could
park all day on a city street. Trucks often sat idle on
the street for days.
The number of cars in Texas had increased by a factor of
twenty in a ten-year surge. The first traffic policeman
had been stationed in a downtown intersection only three
years earlier. The new electric traffic signals had yet
to reach us.
The traffic-light salesman who wrote this utterly
convincing report worked for the Crouse-Hinds Company. He
includes their brochure. The top of the line is the
Automatic Isolated Traffic Signal. It's a
three-color light mounted on a stand in the middle of the
intersection with an automatic timing switch in the base.
How we finally got traffic under some semblance of
control is another story for another day. But the
struggle between personal freedom and our communal best
interest still rages around the automobile. Should we be
allowed to use cell phones as we drive? Must we wear seat
belts? What about exhaust emissions?
I look at those old photos and realize what a major
effort of the inventive muse is needed if we're to have
elbowroom without having my freedom limit your freedom.
It seems hard to believe the level of traffic density
that we now handle routinely, once we've seen those old
streets seeming to choke on Model-T Fords.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.