Before we delve into history1, let’s start with a multiple choice question:
When do you think the first road map was created? Was it:
The answer is, of course, none of the above.
The first road map of significance is arguably a map commissioned by the Emperor Augustus Caesar (63BC – 14AD). Augustus had his son-in-law, Marcus Agrippa, embark on a mapping project that took nearly 20 years to complete. The result was a map that stretched from Middle East all the way back to Britain. Like many of the maps the Romans created at that time it had multiple purposes. Maps were used both to conquer lands and to administer their vast Empire. But like most maps today, they were also used for commerce.
What was interesting about Agrippa’s map was its sheer scale. It measured almost seven meters long (~22 feet) and is 34 centimeters high (~1 foot). So it’s a linear scroll that somewhat conveniently rolled up for reference on long journeys. While it was a distorted format it still showed all the important details: the key settlements, the roads connecting them and distances between each settlement. I should emphasize that the geographic scope of the map was vast: it covered the entire Roman Empire as well as the near east, India and Sri Lanka. It even indicated the location of China.
Alas the map is long gone, but a copy was made in c1250AD and still exists today. It is known as the ‘Tabula Peutingeriana’ and is preserved at the Austrian National Library. It is considered one of their greatest treasures:
Rather than have me feebly attempt to describe this amazing work, I strongly encourage you to watch this 5 minute video from the BBC. I was was dumfounded — and I think you will be too:
But what of more recent maps?
Well let’s fast forward to the year 1500AD. It was then a map of Central Europe was developed by the compass maker and physician Erhard Etzlaub (1460–1532). It is the first known German road map. This was the era of the pilgrims and 1500AD was special — it was designated the ‘Holy Year’. In that year the pilgrims were expected to make their way to Rome and this map was specifically designed to help them find their way. It showed the routes to take and mountains to avoid. Perhaps, then, this is where we got the term “All Roads Lead to Rome”?
Moving on another 200 years, yet another advance in mapping was made in Britain. It was there in the year 1675 that a chap called John Ogilby published a seminal work called ‘Britannia’ — ‘an illustration of the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales; by a geographical and historical description of the principal Roads thereof’.
Ogilby only started map making in the latter part of his life. Prior to that he was a dancer, then he became director of Dublin’s theater. Returning to England in the 1640s he went on to translate and publish Aesop’s fables. He set up a printing shop in London which he used to produce a number of works that included travel guides and traveller’s tales. But in 1671 King Charles II commissioned him to make ‘a particular survey of every county’. What’s interesting about Ogilby’s Britannia is that it takes the form of a strip map, rather like a pre-cursor to the TripTik maps made popular by the American Automobile Association (AAA) in the 1930s. It was Ogilby’s atlas that set the standard for using 1760 yards for the mile, and a scale of one inch to the mile.
The first significant road atlas of the United States was the “A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America,” by Christopher Colles of New York in 1789:
Larry Printz describes the efforts of Colles in his excellent article for Hagerty: “Where the first automative maps roadmaps came from”. He explains:
“Despite such distinguished customers as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the effort faltered because there was little use for road maps in the United States. Most trips were short, made by locals who already knew where they were going. And besides, inner-cities roads were paved. Venturing any farther meant traversing unpaved, unmarked roads. Federal highways didn’t exist. Finding your way took time, patience and luck since most roads were originally trails carved out by wild animals or Native Americans.
It’s little wonder that until the early 20th century, traveling between cities was done mostly by rail, not by carriage.”
In 1901 a businessman and car enthusiast Charles Gillette from Connecticut created a series of maps called ‘The Automobile Blue Book’2 which covered the northeastern US from Boston to Washington DC. A few years later in 1906 the American Automobile Association (AAA) became the official sponsor of the Blue Book which dramatically increased its circulation. It wasn’t until 1911 that AAA produced its first interstate map, “Trail to Sunset,” a booklet of strip maps detailing a route from New York to Jacksonville, FL:
Now if you grew up in the US and were born before 1980 you might be wondering about Rand McNally. They actually got their start in 1868 producing railroad tickets and in 1872 railroad maps3. Their first road map wasn’t published until 1904. In 1907 they assumed publication of the Chapin Photo-Auto Guides — which were super cool — basically it was Google Street View or Apple Look Around about 100 years ahead of its time:
As automobiles and paved roads became more pervasive many other publishers got into the game. In Europe one of the most famous was Michelin. Their first publication, “Guides Michelin” for France, came out in 1900 which was several years before AAA and Rand McNally published their road maps.
What of today? Alas, most young ones can barely read a paper map, let alone know how to use one (street index anyone?). Paper road maps still do exist though! In case you don’t believe me… see the image of the latest Rand McNally road atlas below.
One really cool thing about Rand McNally’s road atlas is that it’s an atlas of the future — in this case for 2023! I’m not sure how the clever people at Rand do this, but perhaps the folks at Google Maps and Apple Maps could take note?
1 Warning to those of you born after 1990: smartphones have not always been ubiquitous. Before their invention one had the laborious task of having to refer to something called ‘printed maps’ to determine locations and routes to get there.
2 Not related to the Kelly Blue Book.
3 You can read more about Rand McNally’s history here
- World History Encyclopedia
- Jeremy Norman: History of Information
- Guinness World Records
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) — especially for this video
- German History Intersections
- The British Library
- Larry Printz for his article “Where the first automotive roadmaps came from” on Hagerty.
- The David Rumsey Map Collection
- Rand McNally