Before There was GPS: Personal Navigation in the early 20th Century

Caitlin Dempsey



The idea of being able to track ones position when moving predates the invention of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and the personal navigation devices that have followed.  Canes distributed at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago contained rolled up maps of the city and fair grounds, providing attendees with a novel way to maintain their bearings.

The Wrist Map

Over the decades, innovators continued to come up with interesting ways for users to track their movements on a map.  Then in the 1920s, thexmade its debut.  

Worn like a watch, a small map was embedded where the watch dial would normally be found.  The maps were wound around small wooden pegs like scrolls and could be switched out of the wristband depending on the route needed.  

The knobs would be turned to advanced the map and directions as needed.  The maps were unidirectional.


Early Automobile Navigation

More than seventy years before the first commercials uses of GPS for navigation were developed, inventors started developing automobile navigation devices.  

This December 30 1909 ad for The Baldwin Auto Guide describes a scrolled map that attached to the steering wheel.  Similar to how film is wound inside a canister, the Auto Guide contained custom map directions which the driver would scroll through by hand.  The device even came with a battery operated light for night map reading.  

An Italian company took this a step further in the early 1930s.  Developed by Touring Club Italiano, the Iter Avto was similar in concept to the Baldwin Auto Guide. 

The Iter Avto added a level of automation by tethering the map scroll to the car’s speedometer.  Users of this system would insert map scrolls for their chosen routes.  Map routes would indicate any gas stations as well as road features likes bridges.  

Like the Plus Fours Routfinder and the Baldwin Auto Guide, the Iter Avto contained maps on a scroll.  The device was connected to a speedometer that kept the scrolling of the map in proportion to the speed of the car.  This seems to be the first device that attempted to show a person’s position in real-time.


Here’s the text from an advertisement (in Italian) of the Iter-Auto device.  The translation of the advertisement (per Google Translate) is as follows:

The Trade Fair in Milan this year has seen the triumph of a manifestation of genius and intelligence Italian! Technicians, amateurs, Sportmans [sic] all have fairly recognized and boasted the practicality and usefulness of “Iter-Auto” elegant and practical guidepost that every motorist will feel the need to apply with quick and easy operation to the dashboard of your car!

Motorists, the Iter-Auto is your patron saint on earth that will guide you by the hand showing you in your travels with impeccable accuracy, by means of a map-route carried on in perfect synchronization with the driving of your car, the way to go as well any data or information practices of those continuing needs such as: Crossroads – Bridges – bumps – Level crossings – Turns dangerous – Supplies – Relief – Garages – Hotels etc.. advising in a timely manner (about 3 km. before) the driver must slow down at the face of danger.

No more stops to peer tables often illegible or check cards inconvenient and often indecipherable to the layman. No more broken down for lack of fuel.

Watch: The world’s first automobile navigation devices

See Also

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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