Car Navigation Systems Before GPS Were Wonders of Analog Technology

GPS systems today are simple, right? Your car or smartphone compares its location with a bunch of satellites, a computer does a little bit of math, and voila, you know precisely where you are. It’s easy-and entirely taken for granted. Long before the Global Position System was opened up to civilians for practical use worldwide in 2000, automakers went to incredible lengths in finding analog solutions to the complex problem of real-time navigation.


What did this entail, exactly? How would a car keep track of its location without microprocessors and all-seeing eyes orbiting above? Think scrolling maps, gyroscopes, speed sensors, and even magnets. Some efforts, as you might expect, were more successful than others.
What you’re looking at here is the first turn-by-turn navigation system, which dates all the way back to 1909. If that sounds surprisingly early to you, consider that the oft-overlooked prewar automotive industry in America was already cranking out over 75,000 cars a year by then. And with new paper maps unable to keep up with the country’s rapidly-growing, ad-hoc road network, there was an immediate recognized need for some sort of active navigational aid for drivers.
Enter the Jones Live Map, the creation of serial inventor J. W. Jones. It was a paper disc with directions for a given journey printed on circumferential segments like the Wheel of Fortune wheel. Only instead of an insurance adjuster from Phoenix spinning it, the disc was placed in a mechanism connected to the car’s odometer, which would rotate to highlight the upcoming direction with a fixed arrow as the car traveled along a pre-planned route.
And just like navigation systems from a decade ago, it had to be updated with more discs. Well, if you consider adding a single route an update, that is. You’ll also notice a pattern going forward when you read about these early systems; that is they can all guide you from a certain place to a certain place. Navigating to the starting point would have to be done manually. And in 1909, that typically meant flagging down pedestrians every few miles in between desperately searching for gas stations and repairing flat tires because the roads were all terrible.
The Jones Live Map was a rudimentary system, but it was extremely useful in the early days of the automobile. Roads-in addition to being of very poor surface quality-often lacked proper signs back then, so using nonstandard directions like “Turn left at the railroad bridge” based on mileage was a big help to drivers.
Unfortunately, it was also a victim of its own timing. As the country’s road network exploded over the following two decades and standard signage came into widespread use, the Jones Live Map couldn’t keep up with the rapid changes in the landmarks on its discs (not to mention new routes opening up) and went out of production in the early 1920s.
The next popular product to try and improve upon a static map was manufactured in Italy circa 1930, called the Iter-Auto. It was basically a long map printed on a scroll with predetermined routes available for sale. The dash-mounted device would turn the scroll automatically and keep up with your location along the route. This was thanks to a cable connection between the map scroll and the car’s speedometer, allowing for a rudimentary form of speed-matched guidance.
The tricky problem for this sort of device is the existence of left and right turns, as the Iter-Auto could only scroll in one direction. So turning hard left or right would present an issue. In all of the literature I have read, It’s unclear how they solved this problem, however, one solution would be that-just as the Iter-Auto had symbols for things like hotels, bridges, and gas stations-it could also have a symbol for a left or right turn. You would be directed to turn left or right, however, the map would keep going straight. There’s a brochure for this device here that’s unfortunately very low resolution, so nothing can be discerned from it. Maybe if one of you can speak Italian and has some sort of superhero vision you can drop us a line.
Another issue with this map that they didn’t solve was the fact that if y…

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.