Nearly 70 years ago, AT&T announced it would stick phones in cars. Bad idea.

John Kelly
Columnist August 29

Boy, there really isn’t anything new under the sun, is there?

That’s what I decided after reading a newspaper article about the danger of talking on the phone while driving a car. Michael Ravnitzky of Silver Spring, Md., came across it in Washington’s Evening Star. Columnist Henry McLemore wrote: “Imagine — if you don’t look too unattractive with your hair standing on end — what the highways and city streets will be like when motorists are driving with one hand holding a telephone receiver, with the other raising the dickens with the operator for giving them a wrong number and taking a hand off the wheel to push a button to take an incoming call.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Some of that language sounds old — “dickens”? “operator”? — but can you guess how old? The column ran Dec. 27, 1945, not long after AT&T had announced that it was rolling out a radio telephone service for cars.

As The Washington Post explained: “Calls will be placed to automobiles through long-distance. The mobile service will take the car’s call number, then route the call over telephone wires to a transmitting receiving station near the highway and from there it will be relayed by radio to the moving car.

“Inside the automobile, the phone will ring and the driver, after picking up the receiver from the dashboard, can switch from listening to talking by pressing a button.”

Columnist McLemore foresaw the problems this could create: “How would you like to be rounding a curve at 60 miles per hour, have the phone ring and be told that your house is on fire, your dog has run away and your wife has taken up trombone lessons.”

His prediction? “Wham! Slam! Crash! And a lot of crunches!”

I wonder what he would make of texting.

I did a little research on McLemore, a Georgia native who was syndicated in hundreds of U.S. newspapers, and discovered that he was prescient about more than just cellphones. After Pearl Harbor, McLemore was a leading voice calling for the confinement of Japanese Americans, or as he wrote: “Herd ’em up, pack ’em off and give ’em the inside room in the badlands. Let ’em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it. . . .

“If making one million innocent Japanese uncomfortable would prevent one scheming Japanese from costing the life of one American boy, then let the million innocents suffer.”

Of course, to our nation’s great shame, that’s just what happened.

Crosstown traffic

And while we’re on the subject of old articles: I came across a 1959 Evening Star story about D.C. traffic. The city’s highway department had conducted an afternoon rush-hour traffic survey. The idea was to see how far a motorist could go in 25 minutes, leaving at various times and taking one of seven routes.

The starting times were 4:30 p.m., 5:15 p.m. and 6 p.m. The starting point was 12th and F streets NW. (The city’s downtown hadn’t yet made its big shift west.)

If you thought the city’s byways were always congestion-free back then, think again. As now, the time you left for home really made a difference.

Pity motorists leaving downtown at 4:30 and taking New York Avenue. They only traveled 3.9 miles by 4:55. It was even worse leaving at 5:15: a mere 2.6 miles. (There was construction on New York Avenue at the time, which surely had a detrimental effect.) Amazingly, if you left at 6, you could travel 12 miles in 25 minutes, all the way to where the Baltimore-Washington Parkway today hits the Beltway. (No Beltway then, of course.)

The most congested route leaving 12th and F at 5:15 was to Alexandria. Motorists went only 1.4 miles, not even enough to get them over the 14th Street Bridge and into Virginia.

Taking Pennsylvania Avenue SE got you 8.1 miles if you left at 4:30 and 4.6 miles if you left at 5:15.

I was particularly interested in how 16th Street fared, since that’s the route I often take. Leave downtown at 4:30 in 1959 and you could make it all the way to Forest Glen Road in Silver Spring in a brisk 25 minutes.

If you’d like to compare your experience, here are the places 1959 motorists could reach by leaving 12th and F NW at 5:15 p.m. and driving for 25 minutes:

Massachusetts Avenue: Massachusetts Avenue and 45th Street NW (4.8 miles).

Connecticut Avenue: Connecticut Avenue and Upton Street NW (Four miles).

New York Avenue: New York and West Virginia avenues NE (2.6 miles).

16th Street: 16th Street and Underwood Road NW (5.5 miles).

Arlington Boulevard: Arlington Boulevard and Fort Myer Drive (3.2 miles).

Pennsylvania Avenue SE: Pennsylvania and Branch avenues SE (4.6 miles).

Mount Vernon Memorial Highway: 14th Street near Maine Avenue (1.4 miles).

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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