Early 20th Century Car Navigation Systems

From the Nothing New Under the Sun dept.: Did you know there were devices that offered turn-by-turn automobile directions in the early 20th Century? An article in Ars Technica highlights several, including the “Live Map”:

The Live Map was a glass-enclosed brass dial attached to the outer edge of the driver’s side of the car and linked via a cable to a car’s odometer. Before leaving on your drive, you would purchase one of the company’s 8-inch paper discs with a trip’s directions, put together by The Touring Club of America. Each disc contained a trip’s mileage on the edge of the disc, with each tick mark symbolizing one mile, and supplementary tick marks for every fifth of a mile. Directions were printed alongside key mileage points like spokes on a wheel, describing road surfaces (paved or dirt), intersections, and rail crossings.

The disc was placed on the dial’s turntable. The driver would put the disc in the machine at the trip’s starting point. As the driver progressed, the disc rotated proportionally to your car’s speed, telling you what to do, what to look for, and where to turn. Each disc covered about 100 miles, at which point you pulled over and stopped to replace the disc with the next one. Of course, the device wasn’t accurate if drivers didn’t precisely follow the centerline of the road. So Joseph’s brother Ernest, to keep the mileage exact, introduced an improvement for 1913 that reduced the amount of rotation transmitted to the device if the driver was steering erratically.

We tend to think of information systems as digital, but that’s because digital systems are the norm today. But people have been thinking for a long time about how to make information access more contextually appropriate and convenient. Among other reasons, digital has made this easier by reducing the amount of stuff (literally, as in physical matter) required to get the right information to the right person at the right place/time.

Turn-by-turntables: How drivers got from point A to point B in the early 1900s