National Geographic article
IMCoS Show & Tell 2, Mark Monmonier, Syracuse University
John Byron Plato’s Clock System Map of Genesee County, New York, exemplifies an innovative, patented wayfinding system devised in early twentieth century America to give farmers a “real address” different from that used by the Post Office. Although a Rural Free Delivery (RFD) address was useful for delivering mail, it was failed the rural traveler eager for the motor vehicle’s social and economic benefits.
I bought my Genesee County map on eBay for a mere $13.94 USD (including tax and shipping) while completing a biography of Plato and his efforts to combat rural isolation. Scheduled for release in March, Clock and Compass: How John Byron Plato Gave Farmers a “Real Address” examines a clever technician’s efforts to make a living by engaging schoolchildren, agriculturalists, and local businesses in a mutually beneficial cartographic enterprise. Because Clock System maps are rare in libraries and institutional map collections, my purchase was a fortuitous find.
Plato invented the Clock System around 1914, when he was a Colorado farmer who lost the sale of some calves to a buyer who couldn’t find his farm. He got the idea for the Clock System while staring at his watch, which had stopped, and recalling the buyer’s lament, “It takes time to find your place.” After failing to license his innovation to the Post Office Department, he was distracted briefly by an ambitious promoter with an extravagant business plan that collapsed under its own weight. Eager to move forward, Plato set up his own company to make and market Clock System maps. A minor figure in the history of cartography, and one of the few who obtained a patent, Plato is noteworthy for having developed his patent commercially.
A Clock System address is based on three steps. After identifying a scattering of locally important business centers, Plato configured a hub-and-spoke referencing framework around each center. Evenly spaced spokes defined a dozen sectors, numbered 1 through 12 like the hours on a clockface. Concentric circles spaced a mile apart and numbered 0, 1, 2, and so forth provided a second coordinate to divide the trade area into “blocks” identified by their hour and mile. Within a block, individual farmsteads were then assigned a unique letter. In addition to a map, the Clock System required a “rural directory” that listed farmers alphabetically along with an address consisting of the name of the central place, the block’s hour and mile numbers, and the farmstead’s identifying letter.
The directory was also a vehicle for advertising, which was an important part of Plato’s revenue stream. Individual map-and-directory sets could be purchased, but one set was provided free to every farmer in the county. Complete coverage made the system attractive to local or national firms selling a diverse array of milking machines, tractors, and other products used on farms as well as consumer goods available at local stores. To cultivate the loyalty of local merchants, Plato did not accept ads from distant companies that did not sell through a local dealer.
Plato’s multiple careers make an intriguing story. He was a student at a pioneering manual-arts high-school in Denver, a soldier in the Spanish-American War, a draftsman, a dealer in veneers and manager of a lumber yard, an inventor and manufacturer of a patented parking brake for horse-drawn vehicles, a schoolteacher, and a livestock farmer, in roughly that order. In early 1896, before starting high school, he attended Cornell University’s three-month Winter Short Course for Farm Youth. Despite an apparent thirst for rural living, he did not have a farm of his own until 1909, when he started buying five-acre lots seven miles north of Denver.
Plato continued to innovate with marketing strategies and graphic design. My Genesee County Clock System map reflects a new approach to labeling farmsteads. Instead of seemingly random letters, merely unique within each block, it relies on two-part house labels consisting of a number and letter. As illustrated in the enlarged excerpt, the letter identifies a particular thoroughfare extending across multiple blocks and the sequential integer that precedes it represents the farmstead’s relative position along the route. Genesee is one of the state’s smaller counties, and its roughly rectangular shape is well suited to a printed sheet. The shapes of many other counties were more challenging.
Maps were an essential part of the wayfinding systems that evolved as rural America enthusiastically adopted the automobile. Although cadastral maps (property maps) were efficient for describing the size and location of farms and other large tracts of land, travelers required routes described graphically on a map of roads, railways, and unambiguous landmarks or verbally or numerically as a list of distances, directions, and turns. Either approach worked well in cities with named streets, house numbers, and abundant signage, but in open country wayfinding guidance (if provided at all) consisted largely of crossroad signs pointing to the next significant place, identified merely by its name and distance. The Good Roads movement of the 1890s led to paved public highways and official route numbers inscribed on free oil-company road maps, but destinations off the primary road network were largely terra incognita. Although the Post Office began selling its RFD maps, on which letter carriers’ prescribed routes were suited to commercial travelers working for the Fuller Brush Company, the more flexible Clock System served a wider audience.