Creative Car Navigation Before the Invention of GPS

Caitlin Dempsey

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Long before GPS in devices made driving directions simple (and sometimes too “easy”), inventors were trying to make navigating the open road a breeze.

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…”

Two inventors debuted in-car navigation devices in 1909 that are profiled in this article.

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.”

An advertisement for a spooled map inside a canister that would be turned by hand.  Below the drawing of a hand turning the canister is several paragraphs of text describing the invention.
An ad for the Baldwin Auto Guide, 1909.

The Baldwin Auto Guide was custom driving directions for a specific trip wound up inside of a 6-inch long scroll that attached to the steering wheel of a car. Similar to how film is wound inside a canister, the Auto Guide contained custom map directions which the driver would scroll through by hand.  

An advertisement for the Baldwin Auto Guide.
The Baldwin Auto Guide.

The device even came with a battery operated light for night driving.  

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

What did these early 20th century mechanical 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

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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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