Navigation tools in the modern car are becoming ubiquitous but the need for such accessories has been with us for some time. At the beginning of the motor age, guidebooks became available to motorists to assist in their travels. These guidebooks provided directions, road conditions, points of interest, places to eat, recommended lodging, and route distances for the intrepid traveler. They did not, however, show you where you were; for that, you were on your own.
As cars and roads improved and the US developed a national highway system, more and more drivers took to the highways to enjoy the adventure of traveling somewhere new. Auto clubs provided maps, and better signage helped but if you did not know the locale, you could still get confused as to where you were or what was ahead on your journey. One inventor sought to solve this dilemma, an unlikely bookkeeper from Los Angeles, Lillian Yancey Huffaker.
Lillian Yancey was born in 1885 and grew up on a farm in Bunker Hill, Ill. not far from St. Louis. She attended Blackburn College, a local two year college from 1900 to 1901. In 1910, she moved to Long Beach where she lived with her brother who was working for the oil companies at Signal Hill. Sometime in the 20’s she married and added Huffaker but by 1930 Lillian was divorced and living in Los Angles working as a bookkeeper. From these unlikely
beginnings, she developed two key concepts; the first was combining a time controlled mechanism to advance a “program” or indicator, and the second a process to construct maps that would convert a conventional map of curved routes into a straight line map that could be advanced by a clockworks mechanism. She combined these two concepts into her TIme- CONtrolled-OMETER or Ticonometer. Lillian was issued a patent for her invention on 30 May 1933 by the US Patent Office. Lillian then proceeded to set up her own business as President and Chief Engineer of Time Controlled Indicators Company, located on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles.
The Ticonometer consists of a mechanism to scroll interchangeable maps past a window with the rate set to the average speed of your car. Your present location is shown at the center of the map. Side routes, points of interest, general road conditions, and highway directions are included in the map. The hardware was manufactured by Seth Thomas Clock Co., in Conn. and the maps, i.e. software, were designed and provided by Lillian who also marketed the product. Various maps were developed for key routes such as Highways 66 from Los Angles to Amarillo, Hwy 99 from Mexicali to Tacoma, and Hwy 101 from Tijuana to The Dalles plus a special tour map of Los Angeles desert and mountain roads. Since Lillian’s business was located in Los Angeles the Ticonometer maps focused on the needs of California drivers.
Although the Ticonometer was a useful navigation device it was not a commercial success. 1935, the year it entered production, was not a great time for the auto industry or for those supplying aftermarket products. Examples of the Ticonometer occasionally show up at horological flea markets but are usually missing the maps. Most people don’t understand what they are for and they end up going home with their current owners. Lillian’s invention not only anticipated our modern GPS but also incorporated many of the features of the then secret Norden bombsight use by the US Army Air Force and Navy in WWII.
Keep a lookout and you might find one of these curious instruments at swap meet or garage sale!