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

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

GPS

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.

Novelty navigation devices for walking around like canes distributed at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago contained rolled up maps of the city and fair grounds, providing attendees with a creative 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 when moving around.  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.  


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

wristband-map

Creative Car Navigation Before the Invention of GPS

Long before GPS in devices made driving directions simple (and sometimes too “easy”), inventors were trying to make navigating the open road a breeze. More than seventy years before the first commercials uses of GPS for navigation were developed, inventors started developing automobile navigation devices.  

Mass production of cars in the early 20th century

The mass production of cars like Ford’s Model T starting in 1908 paved the way for the automobile to become more accessible to the average buyer. No longer the domain of the wealthy, the evolution of car production from expensive hand built machines to assembly-line built vehicles drastically brought down their prices.

A fascination with long-distance travel in the United States was also just starting to emerge at the same time. While much of the United States was unpaved roads and road maps were few and far between, some intrepid motorists were starting to crisscross the country.

A blue map from 1907 showing automobile routes in the United States.
A map created by the Automobile Blue Book showing “Transcontinental Routes of Automobiles Complete to 1907.

In 1903, the first recorded transcontinental road trip was achieved with Nelson Jackson and Sewall Crocker making the trek from San Francisco to New York City in 63 days. Only a total of 11 recorded cross-country road trips would be taken by 1907.

Early United States Road Maps

With more and more people in the United States taking to the road in their personal automobiles, road maps aimed at helping drivers navigate began to emerge.

One of the first of these was the Automobile Blue Book. First published in 1901, the tome was first marketed to wealthy travelers but started to shift towards a middle class audience after 1908.

The 16th volume of Automotive Industries, in a piece about the Blue Book noted [2], “Though road information on an extended scale is is practically a new departure in this country, great progress has been made in these lines during the last two to three years.  For the first time it is possible for automobile tourists to secure reliable information that will enable them to plan trips from any point…”

The emergence of mechanical route guides

Not content with just producing paper maps and guidebooks, inventors were busy coming up with ways to help drivers navigate in the early 20th century. A 1988 report on mechanical car systems reported that “dozens of devices for automobile route guidance were patented between 1910 and 1920.”

An article published in 1911 in Scientific American heralded these and other mechanical car guides that were being invented.

The opening paragraphs of the article proclaimed:

“All tourists by automobile know the difficulties and annoyances of finding and keeping on the best routes to their objective points. They early learned not to play any dependence upon local residents for simple and reliable directions…

… Chief reliance for sure guidance has been placed upon folded road maps, route cards and route books. These contain much essential information, especially the automobile route books, but they also have certain objectionable features. They flutter and become torn in the wind, rain wets and smiles them; the bouncing and swaying of the car makes it difficult to follow the directions or keep the place, and after dark they are hard to read…”

Baldwin Auto Guide

The Baldwin Auto Guide billed itself as the “greatest touring device ever produced.” The invention was designed to be a hands-free solution for driving directions. The device promised to have “all the advantages of the route book and the road map, with none of their faults.”

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.  

Jones Live Map

The Jones Live Map was invented by J.W. Jones in 1909. Jones recognized the potential for a device that could offer real-time navigation assistance, leading him to conceive his unique solution.

An ad for the "Jones Live Map" in a New York newspaper in 1910.
An ad for the “Jones Live Map” to be debuted at the Madison Square Show in a New York newspaper in 1910.

The Live Map represented one of the first attempts to automate navigation for drivers.

The Jones Live Map consisted of a mechanical odometer linked to a map disk housed in a glass-covered casing mounted on the dashboard. The miles from 0 to 100 were printed at the perimeter of the disks. Road directions were printed on the disks, guiding the motorists in the right direction.

A photograph from 1911 showing how a car navigation device was written to the gears in order to track mileage.
An illustrative photograph in Scientific American visualized how the Jones Live Map was attached to the car gears to track miles driven. Photo: Scientific American, 1911.

As the vehicle moved, the map would rotate based on the distance the car traveled, providing the driver with a continuous depiction of their current location and the road ahead.

Each disk covered a distance of 100 miles. Drivers would have to swap out the disks for journeys longer than that.

A black and white photograph of a Jones Live Map disk.
Each Jones Live Map disk covered a distance of 100 miles. Source: Scientific American, 1911.

Detailed routes were printed on the disks, which could be interchanged to cater to different journeys. By linking the odometer to the scrolling map, the Jones Live Map could give drivers a relatively accurate visual sense of their position along a specific route.

The Jones Live Map marked an innovative approach to automobile navigation, offering a more dynamic, although rudimentary, alternative to static maps and road guidebooks. Its design philosophy was to provide real-time location updates to assist navigation

Iter Avto car navigation

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.

iter-auto

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.

What did these early 20th century car navigation devices cost?

Based the prices listed in a 1911 article from Scientific American article about mechanical road guides, the Jones Live Map retailed for $75 (roughly $2,400 in today’s prices) and the Baldwin Auto Guide was a better bargain at $35 (about $1,120 in 2023). That’s quite a chunk of change.

A block of text from a 1911 magazine listing the prices for mechanical car guides.
Mechanical car guides in 1911 were not cheap. Source: Scientific American, 1911, Volume 104, no. 2, Page 48.

Paving the way for more advanced in-car navigation aides

Whiles these mechanical car guides may seem rudimentary in today’s era of easy access to GPS navigation devices, they helped lay the groundwork for the systems we use today.

References

Parviainen, J.A., French, R.L., & Zwahlen, H.T. (1988 August). Mobile Information Systems Impact Study. Ontario Ministry of Transportation, Research and Development Branch Transport Canada, Transportation Development Centre. https://rosap.ntl.bts.gov/view/dot/2332

Perry, H. W. (1911). Some Remarkable Mechanical Road Guides. Scientific American104(2), 33–49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26020857

This article was originally written on September 17, 2013 and has since been updated.

Watch: The world’s first automobile navigation devices

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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.