Maps and Memory

Friday, September 19, 2008 at 9:07 AM

A Google engineer we know named David was recently browsing Book Search, when he came upon the book Pictorial Mileage Road Book: Every Mile a Picture, published in 1915 by the Motogram Company of Richmond, CA. He was amazed to realize what he had, in effect, discovered: a 93-year-old version of Google Maps Street View.

Just like today's Street View in Google Maps, the Pictorial Mileage Road Book "enables one to plan a tour intelligently, to carry it out with certainty, and to have a permanent pictorial record of the whole trip." Indeed, this record was quite permanent -- many of the streets pictured in the book still exist, and can even be identified in Street View today.

This is the "Street View" of the corner of Macdonald and San Pablo Avenues in Richmond, CA, circa 1915.

And here is what the same corner looks like in Street View on Google Maps today.

Clicking on the "Find this book in a library" link shows that there are only four copies of the Pictorial Mileage Road Book cataloged in libraries around the world. And a Google search reveals that there only two mentions of it on the entire web outside of Book Search. This is, in other words, a pretty obscure book.

Thinking of this book, we couldn't help but think: how many other projects have historical precedents of which we're unaware? Or, more generally, what other parts of our lives could be illuminated by the past?

Even something as simple as the morning cup of coffee has a secret history, which is left unconsidered by the majority of people, and probably with good reason. But if you did want to uncover something about the production, chemistry or even etymology of coffee—well, that information is available in All about coffee, a 700-page tome from 1922 that's dedicated to the favorite morning beverage of millions.

These two books—both freely available on Google Book Search—illustrate that even over the course of the years, we still think about the same things. Perhaps there are other unseen histories that Book Search can help you unearth, too.


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