Mapping America

Mapping America

According to Ruth Beach’s recent article in Mental Floss, one man John Brink, had an incredible simple – and ingenious – plan to revolutionize road maps.

Prior to 1917, the only thing more difficult than drawing a road map was reading one. Throughout the county, most roads weren’t marked with signs, and they rarely had names. Bulky printed guides gave complicated directions that were only useful if you were familiar with the area: “Turn left, passing hotel barn (on right); cross iron bridge around mill race. Follow winding, sandy road with poles thru woods, avoiding left-hand road.”

The first-ever Rand McNally automobile road map, brilliantly titled the “New Automobile Road Map of New City and Vicinity,” was published in 1904. In 1916, Rand McNally announced that it would award $100 to any employee who could improve the system.

That’s when John Brink, a freelance map illustrator, had a brilliant idea: Why not give each road a number? Rand McNally jumped at the idea. On top of handing him the cash prize, the company charged him with the enviable task of numbering all the country’s roads. On a map of Peoria, Illinois, the company debuted a new highway numbering system that became the model for the system used across the United States today.

For Brink, his prize-winning suggestion, of course, begat another project: Brink was then asked to oversee the vast effort to tack signs on utility poles across the U.S. so that motorists could tell they were on the right road. When other map companies caught wind of the project, they too started pinning up their own personalized symbols.

By 1925, some poles were plastered with nearly 20 signs! But Brink couldn’t retire just yet. All those competing signs convinced the newly formed National Highway System that the U.S. needed a uniform marking system. So legislators called on Brink, once again, to create the numbering scheme we follow today.

So, the next time you use your GPS or pull a map out of the glove compartment, remember to think of John Brink who helped get us where we’re going.

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