The Star Machine

In the 1930s, the University built a one-of-a-kind planetarium.

Few could claim to have moved the heavens, but Ernest Keller was one of them.

At his command, 4,000 stars in dozens of constellations were kindled. Nine planets and 26 moons stirred, then raced along their orbital paths. Brilliant comets with their long tails careened through the Solar System. And all of it was sped up so that the events of a year could be viewed in a minute.

In the 1930s, under the guidance of Professor Keller, the University of Texas invented a planetarium not quite like anything yet seen.

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Astronomy at UT is as old as the University. The Board of Regents, at its inaugural meeting in November 1881, wanted an astronomy professor on the original faculty, but funding issues forced a delay. No matter. When the University opened two years later, Physics professor Alex McFarlane and math professor George Halstead, teaching in the west wing of the old Main Building (photo at left), incorporated some astronomy topics in their courses. A few students took more than a passing interest, including William H. P. Hunnicutt, who was awarded a special Certificate of Proficiency in Astronomy by the regents in 1887.

Above: Brackenridge’s telescope gift was recorded in the handwritten minutes of the Board of Regents’ April 1896 meeting: “To the School of Physics – An equatorial telescope, five inch object glass, mounted on a tripod.”

A decade later, in the spring of 1896, Regent George Brackenridge of San Antonio presented the UT physics school with a five-inch refracting telescope, mounted on a tripod. “Now that we are provided with the means for work, why not organize such a class?” urged the Alcalde, a student newspaper that preceded today’s Daily Texan (and not to be confused with the alumni magazine of the same name). The telescope was stored in the regents’ meeting room in Old Main, but without an astronomer on the faculty, nothing more could be done. A month later, the Alcalde prodded, “The telescope recently given to the University by Mr. Brackenridge is still reposing in the regents’ room.” It would repose another three years before it was finally put to use.

In 1899, Harry Benedict was hired as an instructor of applied mathematics and astronomy for an annual salary of $1,200. A University alumnus, he was already well-known on the Forty Acres. Benedict earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering at UT, but had also been bitten by the astronomy bug, and in 1894 left Austin to join the staff at the prestigious McCormick Observatory at the University of Virginia. After two years, friends urged him on to Harvard, where he completed a Ph.D. in mathematical astronomy in 1898.

“Dr. Harry Y. Benedict, Instructor in astronomy, has been at the University for the past month getting his work in hand for the next year,” reported the Austin Statesman in September 1899.” He has overhauled the handsome telescope of the University, and has it in good condition for making observations.”

Though he was officially on the faculty of applied mathematics, Benedict was, in effect, a one-man astronomy department. For the next quarter century, he taught a series of astronomy courses, gave public lectures (some illustrated by lantern slides), and was the go-to expert for the local press. Benedict often invited classes to his home just north of campus to view the night sky through the Brackenridge telescope, and sometimes hosted telescope parties on the campus. It wasn’t long before his branch of the faculty was renamed the Department of Applied Mathematics and Astronomy. Left: A 1910 announcement for a public astronomy lecture, held in the auditorium of Old Main.

Along with his teaching duties, Benedict proved to be an able administrator. He was promoted to full professor, served as the first Director of University Extension, then concurrently as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Dean of Men before the regents named Benedict to the post of University President in 1927, the first UT graduate to become its chief executive.

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Once Benedict moved into the president’s office – then located on the first floor of Sutton Hall, in what today is the architecture graduate student lounge – it quickly became apparent that there would be little time for astronomy. Instead, Ernest Keller (photo at right) was hired in 1928 to take the reins.

A newly minted Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Keller was excited about teaching astronomy on the Forty Acres. For those potentially intimidated by mathematics, he added a nearly math-free, popular astronomy course which quickly filled with 200 students. The old Brackenridge telescope, though, was still the only one available, and it was clear that the University needed to upgrade.

In 1933, a new Physics Building – today’s Painter Hall – was opened along 24th Street. Located between the Biological Labs Building to the west and chemistry’s Welch Hall to the east, the three became known as UT’s “science row.” At the insistence of President Benedict, a three-room, $15,000 observatory was installed on the roof. Its centerpiece was a 12-foot long refracting telescope with a nine-inch objective lens, a significant improvement from Brackenridge’s 1896 donation. Keller was named Director of the Student Observatory, and the new instrument was a boon for his astronomy courses as enrollment continued to climb.

Above: The newly opened Physics Building – today’s Painter Hall – with its copper-domed observatory on the roof.

Left: The nine-inch telescope was produced by the Warner and Swasey Company from Cleveland, Ohio..

With new momentum behind the astronomy program, Keller went in search of a teaching tool to augment his classroom, something that would vividly illustrate the motion of the planets and their relation to the stars. A planetarium would be ideal.

The modern version of a planetarium, a domed theater where the night sky is optically projected on the ceiling, was invented in Germany in the early 1920s. It quickly became popular throughout Europe, and the following decade crossed the Atlantic to the United States. Keller took a keen interest in the opening of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago in 1930, and read about others being planned or under construction in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York.

Above: The Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

A planetarium for the University was unlikely. The funding troubles that had confronted the Board of Regents in 1881 were again an issue, though in the 1930s the source was the Great Depression. For two years, from 1933-1935, wages for all state employees, including UT faculty and staff, were reduced as the Texas Legislature struggled to balance the budget. Keller’s $3,000 salary was lowered to $2,100. A planetarium was considered a luxury.

No matter. Keller approached President Benedict with a proposal to build something less ambitious on a slim budget. The idea was really an elaborate “orrery,” a mechanical model of the Solar System (photo at right). Keller’s version would be vertically mounted on a large board, with the planets moving in their orbits along grooved tracks, but with the addition of thousands of stars, drilled into the board and illuminated from behind, of both the northern and southern constellations. From the front, he proposed projecting the images of comets to demonstrate how they passed through the solar system. (The term “orrery” comes from 18th-century Britain, when Charles Boyle, the Fourth Earl of Orrery, commissioned what is considered the modern version of the device.)

Benedict lent a sympathetic ear to Keller’s idea, and not simply because of the president’s own passion for astronomy. A few years earlier, Texas banker William McDonald left an unexpected $800,000 gift in his will for UT to build a formal observatory. Through a partnership with the University of Chicago, Keller’s Alma Mater, the upcoming McDonald Observatory was under construction on Mount Locke in West Texas. When completed, it would house the second-largest telescope in the world, and was certain to boost interest in astronomy on the Forty Acres.

At the same time, the University had been asked to participate in the upcoming Texas Centennial Celebration in 1936.  From June through December, the campus was to become an enormous exhibit hall, with detailed displays in various buildings on Texas culture, history, fine arts, and science. (Gregory Gym was transformed into a natural history museum, with a model of a dinosaur standing guard out front.) The planetarium, along with an exhibit on the McDonald Observatory, could be a major attraction, and further showcase UT’s efforts to become a world-class research university.

Benedict approved the project with a $1,500 budget. The planetarium was to be located in the reading room of the old Library – today’s Battle Hall.

Top: The planetarium was assembled in the old Library Building, today’s Battle Hall. Above: The Daily Texan headline isn’t quite correct. The planets, not the stars, would be in motion in the planetarium.

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Keller recruited mechanical engineering professor Alex Vallance to help with the design, and construction began on the chilly and cloudy Wednesday, January 23, 1935. Over the next eighteen months the project involved the University carpenter, painter, cabinet maker, physics department machine shop, several faculty members, and more than 20 students hired part-time through a Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) grant, one of the many New Deal programs created by President Franklin Roosevelt.

Above: The planetarium, still under construction, on the south end of the reading room. When completed, it was provided with a nicer base and framed by green curtains. The Greek statuary was relocated to the north end of the room.

The planetarium was placed on a square vertical board, 20-feet on a side, and painted a deep blue. Just over 4,000 holes, from ¼ to 1/32 of an inch in diameter, were drilled into the board to display stars seen in both the northern and southern hemispheres. The holes were lit from behind by 62, 60-watt bulbs encased in light-tight containers. “The stars of the planetarium are not made by projecting beams of light onto an interior dome, as in the Adler Planetarium,” reported The Daily Texan, “but by projecting light through the plane of the system by reflecting it along glass tubes from a central source.” Divided into a dozen sections, all of the stars could be lit at once, or only those seen from the Earth on a particular night.  A revolving switch allowed the lit stars to vary by month once the planets were set in motion.

In the center of the board was the Sun, a bright, 500-watt bulb, around which nine planets (including Pluto) and 26 known moons both rotated on their own axes and revolved about the Sun on tracts. The planets were made to scale out of thin glass spheres coated with mercury, which better reflected the “sunlight” and could be easily seen. “The smallest spheres are clearly visible, when illuminated, at a distance of a hundred feet,” Keller wrote in a special article for Popular Astronomy magazine. The largest planet, Jupiter, was seven inches in diameter.

Right: The primary drive that powered the planets on their orbits around the Sun. 

Behind the scenes was a ¾ horsepower motor central drive, along with smaller motors to operate each planet and its moons. Dozens of brass and steel gears and sprockets, all custom made on campus, along with more than 400 feet chain were required. Larger rotating parts were mounted on rubber bases to reduce vibrations and potential noise. The planetarium had two speeds. A year could be made to pass in a minute, or at a faster pace, in 20 seconds.

From the front, Keller designed a “comet projector.” He described it as an optical device “which projects a portion of a lantern slide of a comet in such a manner that the tail of the comet extends outward from the miniature Sun as the comet traverses its orbit.”

Above: Still under construction, chalk was used to outline constellations before star positions were drilled into the board. In this photo, the smallest “ring” is the orbit of Jupiter, which can be seen in the upper left. Saturn is the next planet and easily visible at lower left. The inner planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, are washed out in the photo by the 500-watt bulb acting as the Sun. 

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The planetarium was debuted to the University Science Club and faculty on May 3, 1936, before it publicly opened the following month with the campus-wide Texas Centennial Celebration. Three nights each week – on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday – two showings were held, at 8 and 9 p.m. “The lecture makes the heavens take on a new and brighter aspect,” reported the Austin Statesman. Much of the presentation was centered on the motions of the planets and comets over the previous century, from 1836, when Texas became an independent nation, to the 1936 centennial year.

Along with the planetarium, visitors were treated to an intricate, electrically powered, working model of the McDonald Observatory (photo at right). Built by the Warner and Swasey Company in Cleveland, Ohio, 4 ½ feet tall by 50-inches in diameter, it was shipped to Austin in four boxes with express instructions not to touch anything until a company representative arrived to unpack and assemble it. (Today, the model resides at the McDonald Observatory’s visitor center.)

Next to the observatory was a replica of Mount Locke, with the layout of the buildings, equipment, and roads planned for the observatory site. It was built by students in the School of Architecture, and funded with a National Youth Administration grant, another New Deal program.

Following the planetarium show, everyone was invited to stroll over to the Physics Building to look through the nine-inch telescope.  Jupiter, with its colored bands and four bright Galilean moons, was in the right place in the sky for easy viewing.

Above: A model of the McDonald Observatory on Mount Locke, created by students from the School of Architecture.

Keller’s planetarium was a great success. Crowds through the summer averaged 150 persons each night, and while public attendance tapered off once school began in the fall, it continued to be popular until the Texas Centennial exhibit closed in December. For the next several years, the planetarium was used for its intended purpose, as a teaching tool for astronomy classes.

Keller, though, didn’t remain at the University. In 1940, with the threat of the United States becoming involved in a second global conflict, he was hired as a consulting mathematician for the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, then the largest producer of military aircraft in the nation. With Keller’s departure, and with the University soon focused on World War II, the planetarium was neglected and fell into disrepair.

Years later, in 1946, a Texan reporter took note of the forgotten machine. “On the second floor of the old Library Building, surrounded by bulletin boards and diligent art students, rests a weird-looking object of yesterday’s fame – a planetarium.” Too large to relocate to the Physics Building, Keller’s creation was eventually dismantled. The heavens moved no more.

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Remembering Old B. Hall at 125

This month marks the 125th anniversary of UT’s first residence hall.

B Hall Color Postcard

 “You may tear down the Alamo, but never B. Hall!” – B. Hall Alumni Association

In the storied annals of Texas history, few places could ever compete with the spirit and lore of the Alamo. But for a select group of students who lived on the University of Texas campus from 1890-1926, the Alamo took a back seat to B. Hall.

Nestled on the eastern slope of the Forty Acres, within earshot of the ivy-draped old Main Building, Brackenridge Hall, or simply, “B. Hall,” was the University’s first residence hall. Opened December 1, 1890, it was intended to be an anonymous, unceremonious gift, a low-cost building to provide cheap housing for male students. But the gift of B. Hall grew to be much more.  For decades, the hall and its residents were central to campus life. A stronghold of student leadership, the birthplace of UT traditions, championed as a bastion of “Jeffersonian Democracy,” the hall sheltered future Rhodes Scholars, professors, philosophers, lawyers, physicians, state and national lawmakers, U. S. ambassadors, college presidents, a governor of Puerto Rico, and a Librarian of Congress. For a time the hall became so well-known nationally that letters addressed simply to “B. Hall, Texas,” were known to reach their destination. When it was finally razed in the 1950s, the legacy of the hall wasn’t simply a building and its donor. The gift that was B. Hall rested with the indelible contributions its residents had made to the University, and, later, to the world.

Ashbel SmithDormitories were not originally planned for the University. Ashbel Smith, the first chair of the Board of Regents (photo at left), was flatly opposed to them. “It is even worse than a pure waste of money. Nor should there be a college commons where students eat in mess. Experience is decisive on these points.” By experience, Smith knew of the raucous student rebellions that had plagued Harvard and Princeton and left their dorms in shambles, and of a violent incident at the University of Virginia in which a professor was shot and killed. All of these events involved young men housed together on the campus, which left many college authorities hesitant to build dorms. Cornell’s first president, Andrew White, hoped the hometown citizens of Ithaca, New York would provide room and board. White wrote in 1866, “Large bodies of students collected in dormitories often arrive at a degree of turbulence which small parties, gathered in the houses of citizens, seldom if ever reach.” Manasseh Cutler, a Massachusetts botanist who helped to settle Ohio and found Ohio University, was more direct: “Chambers in colleges are too often made the nurseries of every vice and cages of unclean birds.”

Old Main.1890

Above: In 1889, only two-thirds of the old Main Building was completed. The two children in the front are sitting among bluebonnets about where Sutton Hall is today.

As the University of Texas opened for its seventh academic year in the fall of 1889, enrollment exceeded 300 students for the first time, with almost two thirds of them men. As there was no campus housing, most students found room and board in private homes around Austin for about $25 per month. Additional costs included an annual matriculation fee of $10, a $5 library deposit, and the purchase of textbooks. Tuition for in-state students didn’t yet exist, so that a year at UT could easily be had for less than $300.

That might sound inexpensive, but the cost of living in Austin was too high for many college-aged youth in Texas. At the time, almost 90% of the state’s population was classified as rural, struggling against the Southern agricultural depression of the late 1880s. Poverty conditions were widespread among the farms and ranches of Texas, where eggs brought in just two cents per dozen, cotton netted four cents a pound, and a healthy steer earned five to eight dollars. Young men raised in these conditions, known as the “poor boys” of the state, sought a way out, and looked to the University as a promising opportunity for social mobility.

When the Board of Regents convened in February 1890, George Brackenridge, a wealthy San Antonio banker and University regent, offered up to $17,000 to build an economical residence hall for the state’s poor boys. He preferred to keep his donation anonymous and requested the building be named “University Hall.” His fellow regents, though, wanted to encourage a similar gift for a dormitory for women, and persuaded the reluctant donor to allow the building to be named for him. (They did, though it was from Brackenridge again.) Students would later shorten the name from Brackenridge Hall to simply “B. Hall.”

B Hall Original.1890

Above: The original B. Hall, opened in 1890. The house down the hill to the right sat along Speedway Street and would today be in the middle of the East Mall.

Completed on December 1, 1890, the original hall was a plain, no-frills structure, made from pressed yellow brick and limestone trim. Four stories tall, with simple bay windows and two front doors facing west, it better resembled a pair of low-cost city townhouses adrift on the Texas prairie.
1899 Cactus.Campus from 21st and Guadalupe

Above: The Forty Acres in the 1890s as seen from 21st and Guadalupe Streets. Old Main is in the middle of the campus, with B. Hall to the right.

Initially, Brackenridge Hall housed 48 men and could accommodate more than 100 persons in its ground floor restaurant, which doubled as the first campus-wide eatery. Rent was initially set at $2.50 per month for a room, and meals could be had for less than $10 monthly, half the usual cost of living in Austin by half.

1892 B Hall Menu

Above: The B. Hall menu for Thanksgiving Day, 1892. Check out the prices and the inside jokes with the quotations. Source: UT Memorabilia Collection, Box 4P158, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

A decade after it opened – thanks to another donation from George Brackenridge – the hall was renovated and expanded to house 124 students. Wings were added on the north and south ends, an open community room was built  above the top floor, and towers, turrets, and a red tin roof helped to improve its humble facade.

B Hall Color

Above: In 1899, wings were added to the north and south sides of original building.

B. Hall provided young men in Texas with limited finances the opportunity to attend the University. Many of them were the sons of pioneers, born in log cabins and raised with few luxuries. Practical, self-motivated, and individualistic, all of them were poor. Often equipped with a single change of clothes, some would ride into Austin on horseback, sell their horses, and use the money to help pay for a year’s stay. Almost all held part-time jobs while they were students.

What the hall’s residents lacked in pocket change, they more than made up for in character. From the Texas range they brought with them the best attributes of frankness and determination, and their shared economic status provided them with a common motivation. With limited opportunities to attend school in rural Texas, many had no high school diplomas. They had to prepare themselves for college-level classes and were conditionally admitted through examination. Ages varied from 18 to just over 30.

Sometimes shunned by more affluent UT students, the occupants of B. Hall developed their own fraternal, close-knit community. Academics were taken seriously. Most of the honors students, along with the University’s first Rhodes Scholars, lived in the hall. Professors were frequent guests for dinner and often stayed for the post meal “pow-wow,” held in the dining hall or in the shade on the east side of the building. For an hour or so at dusk each evening, faculty and students engaged in a lively conversation on current affairs, campus issues, or academic topics. “The student that missed the daily pow-wow,” wrote one B. Hall alumnus, “never knew what University life at its fullest really meant.”

B.Hall.1904.Engineering Roommates

Above: Two engineering roommates in B. Hall.

Strong friendships developed between the hall’s residents, as mutual support was always encouraged, and sometimes required. The University’s first visually impaired students lived in B. Hall, among them Olan Van Zandt, who graduated from the Texas School for the Blind to enroll in the law school. None of the texts were written in braille, and recordings weren’t available. Instead, Olan’s fellow denizens spent untold hours reading to him and reviewing torts, contracts, and equity.  Van Zandt graduated with honors and went on to serve in the Texas Legislature: four sessions in the House, and another four sessions in the Senate.

Eyes of Texas First VersionAlong with classes, B. Hall occupants took an active part in UT affairs, voted for themselves in student elections, and were recognized as campus leaders. Their contributions to the University were many and long lasting. The origins of The Eyes of Texas, Texas Taps (“Texas Fight”), student government, The Daily Texan, UT’s first celebration of Texas Independence Day, the Longhorn Band, and even the purchase of the steer that became the longhorn mascot Bevo are all connected to B. Hall. Three of the hall’s alumni: Dr. Harry Benedict, the first alumnus to be appointed UT president; Dr. Gene Schoch, a noted chemical engineering professor who founded the Longhorn Band; and Arno Nowonty, the immensely popular Dean of Student Life, have campus buildings named for them.

Above left: The original lyrics of The Eyes of Texas, written on a scrap of laundry paper in room 203 of B. Hall by John Lang Sinclair.

1901 Cactus.Varsity Band

Above: In 1900, Gene Schoch purchased 16 musical instruments at a downtown Austin pawn shop, and then recruited a group of B. Hall residents to form what is today the Longhorn Band.

While most college dorms were heavily supervised by campus administrators, UT officials allowed the hall’s denizens to largely manage themselves. While there was a hired steward to look after finances, the students created their own B. Hall Association, wrote a constitution and by-laws, and enacted their own regulations. A suit and tie was required dress for all meals, musical instruments could only be played between 1-2 pm. and 5-7:30 p.m., and card playing was expressly prohibited.

Rusty Cusses.1908

Above: The Rustic Order of Ancient and Honorable Rusty Cusses was a very non-serious social club of B. Hall men who hailed from farms and ranches around Texas. Several campus organizations were born within the confines of B. Hall, including the Texas Cowboys and the Tejas Club.

That doesn’t mean life in the hall was all serious business. With little money for entertainment, the hall’s occupants often had to create their own diversions, and a favorite pastime was staging elaborate practical jokes.  One student discovered he was a great voice impersonator and, pretending to be University President Sidney Mezes, called professors and instructed them to “be at my house tonight at 8 to discuss a serious matter.” Harried faculty members showed up unexpectedly at Dr. Mezes’ front door. Another B. Haller physically masqueraded as the UT president and registered most of the freshmen with fake papers, which resulted in a very interesting first day of class. A lost donkey was led into the women’s dorm as a late night gift on Halloween. In search of a new morning wake-up alarm, some hall residents “borrowed” a bell from the Fulmore School in South Austin. When a few B. Hallers tricked the Texas Legislature into officially inviting a world famous pianist to the State Capitol to “sing” his most famous piece, the incident created national headlines. As Engineering Dean Thomas Taylor, a regular guest at the hall, once remarked, “Barely a week passed by that some freakish cuss did not spring something entirely original, and not half of it ever got into the newspapers or magazines.” Many of the antics became legendary and the stories were passed along to succeeding generations of students.

After graduation, when the “poor boys” of B. Hall had completed their hard won degrees, they set out to make to the most of their education. Along with an impressive list of professors, lawyers, judges, authors, state legislators, engineers, and physicians, the alumni roster included a Librarian of Congress, a governor of Puerto Rico, multiple U.S. ambassadors,  Morris Sheppard and Ralph Yarborough as U.S. Senators, and Sam Rayburn as Speaker of the House.

Most of the alumni maintained a lifelong, cherished attachment to the hall, often visited when they were in Austin, and were welcome guests. Prodded by the current occupants to tell stories of the “old times,” alumni shared their UT adventures, along with their experiences after graduation, and in the process inspired the generation of students.

B. Hall from Main Building.1945By the 1920s, as University enrollment surpassed 4,000 students, B. Hall was still the only on campus men’s dorm. Though it was no longer a designated refuge for the “poor boys” of the state, it was still less expensive than other housing options and in high demand. The hall’s popularity meant that most rooms went to upperclassmen or older students, who were solid academically and already involved as campus leaders.

 

Above left: Where on campus was B. Hall? This photo, taken from the Tower observation deck in the 1940s, shows the hall straddled what today is the East Mall. Immediately behind the building is Waggener Hall and Gregory Gym, with the stadium in the upper left.

However, the building itself was in the way of future campus development. In 1925, the Board of Regents decided that B. Hall was too close to Garrison Hall – then under construction – to remain a dormitory. Garrison was to be a co-ed classroom building. According to the regent’s minutes, “young women should not be required to attend classes in full view of the bedrooms of men, particularly in a dormitory where freedom in matters of clothing is well-known.” Alumni of the hall loudly protested, organized into a formal B. Hall Alumni Association, and threatened legal action. (The Association’s president was, appropriately, Walter Hunnicutt, the composer of the “Texas Fight!” song.) Before the situation became too tense, University officials and alumni settled on a compromise: the current B. Hall could be re-purposed if a new Brackenridge Hall was built on a more appropriate site.

The hall was closed in 1926, renovated, and served, among other things, as the first home of the School of Architecture until it moved into more spacious quarters at Goldsmith Hall. In 1932, a new Brackenridge residence hall was formally dedicated on 21st Street.

Brackenridge Dorm.1930s.

Above: A new Brackenridge Hall was opened in 1932, just south of Gregory Gym.

B Hall was finally razed in 1952 to clear the way for the East Mall. As it was being demolished, the contractor did his best to satisfy the many requests from alumni for specific bricks, doors, floorboards, and other pieces of the building. Former Austin Mayor Walter Long also ensured that some parts of the hall were kept and preserved by the University. One of those pieces, a decorative pediment from the roof, spent decades in storage at the Pickle Research Center, but has been restored and is now on display in Jester Center, just outside the auditorium.

B Hall Pediment.

Above: it’s still possible to see a piece of old B. Hall. A decade ago, the author discovered a decorative piece from the building in a warehouse at UT’s Pickle Research Center in north Austin, sitting on top of a pile of dusty boxes that contained the clock from the old Main Building (upper left). Thanks to funding from the UT Division of Housing and Food and the Texas Exes, the six foot tall piece was restored and is now hanging in Jester Center (above center), complete with a story board. The piece comes from the top floor of B. Hall (upper right, highlighted in brown).

1900. B Hall from Speedway

Dr. Battle vs. the Jitneys

Battle vs Jitney.2

It was a pleasant spring evening in Austin, just after 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 25, 1915, as Harry Benedict and Will Battle were sharing a jitney ride to a meeting downtown. Benedict was the dean of UT’s College of Arts and Sciences, while Battle had recently been named Acting President of the University after the departure of Sidney Mezes the year before. Their driver was a young man, about 18 years old, with a friend of the same age sitting in the front passenger seat.

Heading west on 11th Street, in front of the Texas Capitol between Congress Avenue and Colorado Street, the driver suddenly accelerated, swerved abruptly to the opposite side of the road, almost collided with a car coming from the other direction, and took aim at a group of small dogs loitering near the curb. Benedict and Battle gasped as their driver, “greatly to his own delight and that of his companion,” managed to hit and kill one of the dogs.

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Ford Model T Assembly LineA century ago, the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 triggered an economic recession in the United States, but out-of-work entrepreneurs discovered a business opportunity using Henry Ford’s Model T automobiles. Introduced in 1908 and regarded as the first car priced for the middle class, the Model T was famous for its mass production. By 1914, Ford’s refinements to his impressive assembly line in Michigan had reduced construction time to 93 minutes, and a new car rolled out of the factory every three minutes.  With the cost lowered to just under $400, thousands of Model T’s flooded the streets of America’s cities.

But the growing popularity of the automobile began to challenge the trolley as the traditional form of urban transportation. Late in 1914, some enterprising Model T owners in Los Angeles discovered they could offer seats in their private cars for the same fare as a trolley: a nickel, or in the slang of the time, a “jitney.” Riding in the comfortable seat of a car was preferable to the crowded trolleys, and the cars – dubbed “jitneys” to distinguish them from the higher priced taxi cabs – could reach their designated stops faster. As The Nation reported, “This autumn automobiles, mostly of the Ford variety, have begun in competition with the street cars in [Los Angeles]. The newspapers call them ‘Jitney buses.’ ” By December 1914, the city had issued more than 1,500 chauffer licenses to jitney operators. Within a year, the idea was popular from coast to coast, more than 62,000 jitneys carried millions of passengers daily, and the Jitney Craze was born. “From hence to thence for five cents!” was the popular slogan.

From 1915 to 1918, the jitney was the new, convenient, trendy way to get about town.  In some ways it resembled an unregulated taxi service, as jitneys often survived by siphoning off streetcar passengers. Full-time Jitney drivers followed the routes of the trolleys, pulled over wherever a group of people were waiting, filled the car with customers, and took off for the riders’ destinations. For others, it was the first form of a ride-share or carpool. Some drivers who were commuting or otherwise going into town anyway would pick up a passenger or two and make a little pocket change on the side.

The jitney fad inspired a series of popular songs, a new dance called the “Jitney Joy,” a Charlie Chaplin film titled “A Jitney Elopement,” and plenty of original fashions for women’s hats.

Jitney Sheet Music.

jitney Lunch ad

Above: The Jitney Craze brought with it new popular music. Click on the title to listen to “Gasoline Gus and his Jitney Bus.” Also above: The Jitney Lunch café opened in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1915. All items on the menu were purchased a la carte for five cents each – the price of a jitney ride.

Austin Jitney Ads

Above: Locally, Joe Koen Jewelers promoted the “Jitney Plan” to purchase pocket watches, while Scarbrough’s Department Store advertised the “Jitney Knockabout” hat for women. A century later, Koen’s is still in business on Congress Avenue, while Scarbrough’s closed its last store only a few years ago.

In Austin, as elsewhere, trolley operators and jitney drivers didn’t get along with each other, and were attentive of the others’ customers. For riders, choosing a jitney over a trolley, or vice versa, was potentially perilous. “The matter of transportation makes life one thing after another,” explained the Austin Statesman. “If one rides the jitneys and criticizes them, he cannot ride them anymore. If he rides the jitneys, the street car men take his name in a book and remember him afterward as a patron of that iniquitous automobile institution.”

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William BattleHarry Benedict and Will Battle were understandably upset with their jitney driver, both for his reckless driving and for killing a defenseless canine. “I indignantly reproached him,” recalled Battle (photo at left) in a letter written to Austin Mayor Alexander Wooldridge, “and told him I was going to report him and asked his name.” The young man refused to identify himself, though Battle managed to get the license number. Instead, the driver demanded that Benedict and Battle exit the car. Since the two had already paid their nickel fares, they refused, and the unhappy driver was forced to take his passengers on to their destination along Sixth Street.

Two days after the incident, a description of what had happened, along with Battle’s written complaint, found its way into the Thursday morning edition of the Statesman.  “[Battle] did not necessarily determine that he would boycott the jitneys,” the newspaper cautioned. “He wanted them reformed for his own comfort.” The timing, though, could not have been worse for local jitney drivers, as the City Council was just then considering its first ordinance on jitney regulations.

AAS Headline.Jitney Gets Even

Thursday afternoon, while the news story was still part of the gossip of the day, President Battle and government professor Charles Potts were downtown along Congress Avenue. They stepped off the curb and waved to the nearest jitney for a ride back to campus. “Jauntily did [Battle] walk in to the street … with Professor C.S. Potts to get into a jitney,” reported the Statesman. “And just as jauntily did a jitney driver hail him with the salutation, ‘We know you!’ and leave the University president standing blankly in the street, controlling his temper perhaps, but probably not in the most satisfied mood in the world.”

Poor President Battle! Because of his note to the mayor, he was no longer a welcomed jitney passenger. Though Battle could still ride the trolleys, the newspaper stories let everyone know that Battle actually favored the jitneys. The offended trolley operators, then, had the name of the University president in their “book,” and gave him cold stares when he boarded.

In a few years, the jitney all but disappeared from the urban landscape. While streetcars were taxed and provided income to their host cities, jitneys initially had no such obligations, and because they took passengers away from the trolleys, city budgets were ultimately affected. An abundance of regulations, some legitimate – standards for qualified jitney drivers, the safety of passengers, and so on – combined with some less fair – jitneys were not allowed to deviate from trolley routes, could only operate at certain times, etc. – made the jitney less profitable. By 1918, more than 90% of the jitney services that opened in 1915 had ceased operations.

In the meantime, Dr. Battle continued to be a faithful rider of Austin trolleys and, later, the city bus system. Though he lived another 40 years after his jitney adventure, Battle never learned to drive a car.