William Phelps Eno

William Phelps Eno

A little filler item in a recent magazine said that William Phelps Eno invented the stop sign. I confess that I had never heard of Mr. Eno, and looked into that name on line.

What I found was the Eno Center for Transportation, an organization with a large presence in Washington D. C., a huge staff, an elaborate web site, and lots of other information that embarrasses me for not knowing about it.
The center produces a 20-year-old publication called Eno Transportation Weekly, aimed at government people and other big shots, keeping them informed about public transit and related matters.
I wonder how many readers know who or what Eno was. But drivers stop at his sign every day.
William Phelps Eno was born in New York in 1858. His father was a millionaire real estate tycoon. He went to the best schools, toured England, Italy and France as a boy, got a degree from Yale, and joined his father’s firm.
But one experience bothered him. When he was nine years old, he was caught in a complicated traffic jam in New York.  About a dozen horses and carriages were involved.
There were no rules or customs to follow, no idea of which side of the street to drive on or who goes first, and neither the drivers nor the police seemed to know what to do.
That experience fascinated young Eno. He joined his father’s business, but in 1899 his father, Amos, gave him several million dollars, and he left the firm to devote the rest of his life to studying traffic.
One of his first traffic control inventions was developed when he missed the opening of an opera because of confusion from several carriages at once trying to maneuver to the entrance of the Metropolitan. He developed a numbering system for arriving carriages, with an electric signal that indicated which carriage pulled up next.
It’s easy for a multi-millionaire to get some attention. “Rules of the Road,” in a document developed by Eno, were adopted by New York City in 1909 (in the days when “traffic” meant horses and you had to use a hand crank to start a motor car.)
Eno also wrote the first manual of police traffic regulations. He developed the first traffic plans for London and Paris. He created a plan for trains to run under the streets of New York City, before the word “subway” existed.
He gradually became interested in all kinds of transportation, and through the years studied and wrote about the management of railroads, shipping and aviation.
Eno was probably responsible for some things we now take for granted: that traffic control is the responsibility of government, and traffic engineering is a profession.
In 1921, Eno incorporated the Eno Transportation Foundation. Its original insignia bore the inscription “Ex Chao Ordo,” Latin for “Order from Chaos.”
The foundation provides government, and the world generally, with research and training on transportation issues. (The phrase “think tank” comes to mind.)
It doesn’t just study public transportation, streets and motor vehicles. It has an eye on pedestrians, freight, aviation, even bicycles.
William Eno died in 1945, at the age of 86. He never learned how to drive an automobile.             
Visit Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.

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