Skip to main content

The Google Maps of 1917

Before Mapquest and Google, there was the "electric directory."
  • Author:
  • Updated:
The "electric directory" as seen in the July 1917 issue of Popular Mechanics.

The "electric directory" as seen in the July 1917 issue of Popular Mechanics.

Our relationship with maps has evolved over the past hundred years. We don't have to unfold too-large sheets of paper, search out our destination, and trace back the route with a marker anymore. We can plug in an address or a point of interest, and a computer will tell us how to get there. But that might not be as new as it seems.

This "electric directory"  from 1917 (pictured above) contains many of the elements any modern tourist in New York City might desire. Just push a button with the attached pen, and your route is illuminated. Local advertisers even had their own real estate on the electric map, with back-lit information about where to find their goods and services.

The July 1917 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine included a short piece about the new electric map:

Several hotels in New York have installed in their lobbies an electric directory for the guidance of their guest to points they wish to visit in the city. A metal directory board exhibits a city map, divided into 56 numbered sections, each lighted by a six-volt lamp controlled by a push button with a corresponding number. An index book gives the visitor the number of the section in which any street, building, or point of interest is located, as well as the name of the proper transportation line; and pushing the button of that number lights up the section on the board and shows its relative position and distance from the hotel.

The photo above was taken at the Hotel Martha Washington by the Electric Directory Company in order to promote their new technology with the hopes that it might spread nationally. It eventually did—but not until things like Mapquest and smartphones came into existence, more than half-a-century later. We still have communal directories at malls and in airports, but most of them won't trace out your route. In that way, the Electric Directory Company might have been ahead of our time.