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Who Taught You to Drive?

Driving lingo, Part 2

A schematic drawing provides a view of an early Jersey barrier, but offers no clues to the design’s inventor.

New Jersey Department of Transportation

A schematic drawing provides a view of an early Jersey barrier, but offers no clues to the design’s inventor.

It should come as no surprise that Jersey barriers originated in New Jersey. Who invented them, though, is less concrete.

According to the New Jersey Department of Transportation, a state research engineer named William VanBreeman deserves the credit. Without a computer, modern engineering formulas, or even much testing, VanBreeman sketched out the barrier’s enduring design more than 60 years ago.

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“Bill conceived the original parabolic shape in 1949,” reads the official account of the barrier’s history. “No one has yet designed a more effective concrete median barrier.”

That’s not, however, what the Stevens Institute of Technology contends.

Peruse the website of the Hoboken, N.J., school and you’ll discover that “the earliest versions” of the Jersey barrier were “designed and developed at Stevens” three years earlier, in 1946.

“Today, the barriers direct traffic and prevent accidents on hundreds of thousands of miles of American roadway,” the school website boasts under the headline “Stevens Impacts Modern Transportation.”

A Jersey-barrier dispute. Who would have thought?

The origins of words and phrases in our driving lexicon aren’t always easy to pinpoint. As covered in a recent column, no one can really say why we use cul-de-sac, a fancy French term, to describe a dead-end street — though it does sound nicer.

Today we’ll explore the history behind a few more driving terms, the Jersey barrier among them.

Station wagon

Who put the station in station wagon? The word, according to automobile historians and station-wagon aficionados, actually refers to train stations.

Before the rise of the automobile, train travelers needed a way to transport their luggage to and from rail stations. Instead of calling a taxi, they rang for a station wagon, which was a horse-drawn carriage with extra cargo space for suitcases and trunks.

“The very first station wagons were called ‘depot hacks’ — they worked primarily around train depots as hacks,’’ or taxicabs, writes enthusiast Steve Manning on the website www.stationwagon.com. “They were also called ‘carryalls’ and ‘suburbans,’ a name Plymouth used on their wagons until the late 1970s.”

When people started building automobiles with extra space for luggage, the name was transferred.

The first production-line station wagon was the Durant Star, produced in the early 1920s, Manning writes. But auto hobbyists were building station wagons much earlier than that, says Matthew Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. 

“The earliest station wagons were not built by automobile companies. Instead, custom body builders put wood wagon bodies on existing auto chassis,” he said.

Kit Foster, a Connecticut-based automotive writer and a past president of the Society of Automotive Historians, says New England resorts of the early 1900s usually had their own station wagons to pick up guests at train stations. They were “the ancestors of today’s airport shuttle buses,” Anderson said.

As cars became more affordable and commonplace, the station wagon’s role expanded to that of an everyday vehicle.

“In Eastern Massachusetts, into the late 20th century, they were often called ‘beach wagons,’ ” Foster said, as they were ideal for summer trips with the family. “Now we don’t even have them. The SUV is our station wagon.”

Rubbernecking

Words generally start out tied to a specific meaning, says Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Boston Globe and executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com  and Vocabulary.com. When people first talked about shifting gears, it exclusively meant moving from one transmission gear to another. Only over time did the expression become used metaphorically to express change of any kind.

Rubbernecking doesn’t follow that pattern. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term goes back to 1894, when an Ohio newspaper defined a rubberneck as someone who continually peeps around or is nosy.

“It was the idea that someone who is always looking around must have a rubber neck,” Zimmer said. “It also meant a sightseer or tourist. So it looks like it had a more general application before it became more specific for staring at a car accident.”

The transition to its current use occurred fairly recently. An early reference, according to the OED, can be found in Time magazine, which used rubbernecking in 1977 to describe Wisconsin motorists who slowed to a crawl when confronted with the painting of a large blue cow on a barn.

Jersey barrier

Whether VanBreeman is the undisputed father of the Jersey barrier or he had help from the Stevens Institute is hard to say.

Carol Paszamant, the New Jersey transportation agency’s research librarian, provided me with the official history of the barrier and some other source material crediting the state with its invention. The first barriers were erected in 1949 to stop head-on collisions from cars crossing highway medians that were as narrow as nine feet across, according to state records.

Paszamant said she’d never heard of the technology school’s claim.

“I’m not seeing the word Stevens pop out anywhere” in her research, she said. “You would have thought somewhere they would have mentioned them.”

That doesn’t close the case, however. New Jersey shut its transportation library in the 1980s, and when that happened, many records were thrown away, Paszamant said, leaving her archives admittedly incomplete.

Unfortunately, the Stevens Institute couldn’t provide me with any records supporting what’s written on its website, either.

I spoke with a half-dozen professors and staff members, including some in the institute’s library. Some had no clue that Stevens supposedly invented the barrier (“but bubble wrap was invented here,” one told me), while others knew the lore but lacked details.

Researcher Peter Jurkat told me he tested the effectiveness of Jersey barriers while at Stevens in the late 1960s, using miniature barriers and footlong cars so detailed they had actual suspension systems. Now retired and living in Santa Fe, Jurkat said he believes Jersey barriers were first used by either the state of New Jersey or General Motors Corp., who had them on test tracks.

Jurkat said he’d never been told that Stevens had invented them.

“I was not aware of anything like that,” he told me by phone. “We never acted like we did.’’

Professor emeritus Daniel Savitsky, 91, started at Stevens in 1947, a year after the school website’s says the barriers had been created there. To his recollection, no one at the institute had been working on the barrier before he arrived, and he’s dubious of the website’s claim.

“Most of our effort at that time was still war-related projects,” Savitsky said in a telephone interview. “I suspect any effort I make to find files of that day would be fruitless. I think you need to dismiss that.”

The exact etymology of the Jersey barrier likewise is unclear. New Jersey state records from the 1950s and 1960s refer to them simply as concrete median barriers, or center barriers. Whoever nicknamed them Jersey barriers,very likely wasn’t from New Jersey.

“But that makes sense,” Paszamant said. “We would have referred to it simply as what it was, a concrete barrier. Someone else would have referred to it from the state it came from.”

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.
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