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January 16, 2023

Before Google Maps, There Was a Navigation Hotline You Could Call for Directions, 1963

40 years before Google Maps, it was not possible to get exact locations by a click – you probably called people to look at physical maps. When you traveled, you had to clutch on physical maps, (sometimes, hand-drawn) which at every turn and stop you had to look at very carefully. Well, not any more; all that has changed now! With a click of a button, thanks to Google Maps, you can even go the extra mile – view a map over time.

Today, we have tremendous mapping and analysis software on the phone in our pockets. But in the 1970s, it was a technical feat just to make a map using a computer. The computers were large mainframes that were only available at sophisticated laboratories and universities. To make a map required substantial expertise in computer science, cartography, and engineering. When Libya invaded Chad, the HLCG geographers went into work at 6 AM to delete the “chain” (topological data structure for international boundaries) between the two countries -- and to make a new map. (Later, after the invasion was suppressed, they reinstated the chain).

It took years of foundational work in algorithms and data structures to establish GIS (Geographic Information Systems). That meant that, later, GIS plus GPS and flash memory obtained the iPhone, Google Maps, etc. Much of this foundational work was done at Harvard and similar laboratories in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. For example, topological data structures were regularly used in the Harvard GSD in the 1970s, long before computational topology became a vibrant offshoot of the geometry and computer science communities.

To give an idea of what a different world it was before GIS, pictured above is a “directions” call center long before satellite navigation and GPS were commonplace. The image, taken in 1963, shows operators giving directions to callers who would inquire about driving directions before they left their home on a trip.


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