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Clock and Compass: How John Byron Plato Gave Farmers a Real Address

A city guy who aspired to be a farmer, John Byron Plato took a three-month winter course in agriculture at Cornell before starting high school, which he left a year before graduation. He worked as a draftsman, ran a veneers business, patented and manufactured a parking brake for horse-drawn delivery wagons, taught school, and ran a lumber yard. In his early thirties he bought some farmland north of Denver and began raising Guernsey cattle, which he advertised for sale in the local paper. When an interested buyer eager to see his calves couldn't find his farm, Plato realized that an RFD postal address was only good for delivering mail.

     Plato's solution was a map-and-directory combo that used direction and distance from a local business center to give farmers a real address, just like city folk. He patented his invention called the "Clock System" and tried to sell it to the Post Office. What follows is a tale of persistence and failure as rural farming declined and technology and capitalism overtook John Plato's chances at geographic immortality.
     I've called him a minor figure in the history of cartography, but this begs the question, What do we mean by 'minor' and 'major'?" Plato is 'minor' in the sense that you probably never heard of him, and he's not mentioned anywhere in Volume Six of the History of Cartography, which covers the 20th century. That said, his work figures prominently in my 2017 book on patented map-related inventions.

     I wrote the biography to make Plato and his work better known. It really helped that he had an intriguing life story. It is gratifying that the University of Iowa Press has made the book relatively affordable (for a nearly-200-page book with over 60 illustrations) by keeping the list price of the paperback under $20.


"Well-written, thoroughly researched, and richly illustrated, Mark Monmonier's Clock and Compass is more than a simple tale of an entrepreneurial cartographer. The fact that Plato's system was not widely utilized does not make the story less significant. Monmonier offers insight into geography and mapmaking, the changing social landscape of rural America, and government bureaucracy."—J. L. Anderson, Author of Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America


"A leading expert in 20th century cartography, Mark Monmonier has given us a thoroughly researched and engaging history of John Byron Plato and his ingenious, patented clock system for creating rural addresses. This is a must read."—Judith Tyner, Author of Women in American Cartography


"An inherently fascinating, meticulous researched based, unique and original contribution to the study of American History, Clock and Compass: How John Byron Plato Gave Farmers a Real Address by Professor Mark Monmonier will prove to be an immediately welcome and enduringly appreciated addition to community, college, and university library collections. Impressively informed and informative, it should be noted for the personal reading lists of students, academia, and non-specialist general readers with an interest in the subject that Clock and Compass is also readily available in a digital book format (Kindle, $9.99)."—Michael Dunford, Midwest Book Review Bookwatch


Connections and Content: Reflections on Networks and the History of Cartography

A collection of stories about networks and mapping, Connections and Content shows how networks, broadly defined, pervade cartography in multiple ways. Organized into chapters titled Baselines, Geometry, Symbols, Infrastructure, Telecommunications, Topology, and Control, these stories show how networks became a strategy for acquiring measurements essential to making and using maps as well as a category of cartographic features that demonstrate the map’s evolving role in connecting places and recording technological change. Some of these stories highlight mapping’s dependence on mathematics, others emphasize the importance of graphics and visualization. Collectively these stories argue for the importance of the network as a unifying concept for understanding and using maps.

"What networks?" you ask. Here's a short list of the networks, maps, and related graphics covered:
• the triangulation networks used to establish the baselines that set a map’s scale;
• the astronomical observations, ellipsoids, geodetic arcs, telegraph networks, and GPS constellations used to establish latitude and longitude at control stations;
• the cartographic symbols that portray network features on maps;
• the survey networks used to situate and construct canals, railways, roads, and power lines;
• the postal and electronic networks used to create and disseminate weather maps; and
• the topological networks that underlie modern census enumeration and satellite navigation systems.

Connections and Content: Reflections on Networks and the History of Cartography

How to Lie with Maps, 3rd ed

Geographical Magazine, the National Geographic of the U.K., named "How to Lie with Maps" by Mark Monmonier, distinguished professor of geography and the environment at Syracuse University, as one of the eight essential books for geographers. "Mark Monmonier reveals the ways in which maps tell only one side of any story, reflecting the views and biases of their makers. Updated for the digtial age in this new edition, the book now examines the myriad ways that technology offers new opportunities for cartographic mischief, deception, and propaganda."


While retaining the same brevity, range, and humor as its predecessors, this third edition, issued in 2018, is a substantial update and freshening. It includes significant updates throughout as well as new chapters on image maps, prohibitive cartography, and online maps. It also includes an expanded section of color images and an updated list of sources for further reading.

Patents and Cartographic Inventions: A New Perspective for Map History

Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Patents and Cartographic Inventions: A New Perspective for Map History explores an arena of cartographic creativity largely ignored by map historians: the patents system, whereby an inventor can lay claim to a novel idea and control its use for two decades. As I argue in chapter one, the patents system is not just a way to get ideas in print but also a parallel literature, similar in fundamental ways to the conventional academic-scientific-technical literature of books and journal articles. Although the patents system appeals to a different kind of innovator—someone with a product in mind and a decidedly more practical bent than the typical scholar—it is a coherent literature, with a vetting process, distribution channels, citation protocols, and searchable databases. In this milieu the patent examiner serves as both editor and peer reviewer, and the vetting, as I show, can be contentious and protracted. Although patents are characterized by a distinctive jargon I call patentese and by a heavy reliance on drawings to explain a device or process, the published patent, like the published journal article, addresses a shared need for achievement that motivates inventors and scholars alike.

Cartography: History

Article in The International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment, and Technology (2017).

Cartography in the Twentieth Century

Cartography in the Twentieth Century is Volume Six of The History of Cartography, a multi-volume reference work published by the University of Chicago Press.

Adventures in Academic Cartography: A Memoir

Bar Scale Press, 2014, 2016. (available at Amazon.com).

Adventures in Academic Cartography: A Memoir is a personal history offering insight to the diverse impacts of computer technology on the world of cartography and mapping. It surveys the author’s half century of work as a scholar, educator, and editor as well as his commitment to demystifying for general readers the power of maps as a tool for understanding and persuasion. An overview of his undergraduate and graduate training and early university employment precedes engaging accounts of his experiences as a classroom teacher; academic researcher, book author, journal editor, consultant, and editor of Cartography in the Twentieth Century (Volume Six of the monumental History of Cartography). Additional chapters reveal his views on theory, map collecting, and writing. This integrated collection of stories promotes an understanding of the many facets of academic cartography, which emerged in the twentieth century as a distinct mapping endeavor that touches geographic education, technological innovation, national defense, public policy, professional organizations, libraries, map collections, and academic and trade publishing. The internal design was revised in 2016 to remove awkward spacing between words, and problems with hyphenation.

Mark Monmonier pursued a vigorous career in cartographic scholarship, with faculty appointments at the University of Rhode Island, the State University of New York at Albany, and Syracuse University, where he was appointed associate professor in 1973 and promoted to professor in 1979 and distinguished professor in 1998. Electronic strategies for map design and analysis dominated his research through the mid-1990s. He published the first general textbook on computer-aided mapping and made innovative contributions to interactive statistical graphics. An early invention now known as the Monmonier Algorithm became an important research tool for geographic studies in linguistics and genetics. An emerging curiosity about the intersection of mapping and public policy led to Technological Transition in Cartography (1985) and Spying with Maps (2002), and a growing interest in origins inspired focused histories like Air Apparent: How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict, and Dramatize Weather (1999) and Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection (2004). Recognition includes an Association of American Geographers Media Achievement Award (2000), the American Geographical Society’s O. M. Miller Medal (2001), and the German Cartographic Society’s Mercator Medal (2009). He continues an active life of scholarship, currently focused on patented cartographic inventions.

“Critiquing Critical Cartography”

Published on ResearchGate.net (11 January 2016) and Academia.edu (13 January 2016), DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.3332.7126.

“Sector Theory (with a long headnote)”

Published on ResearchGate.net and Academia.edu, 17 January 2016, DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1235.5605.

Lake Effect: Tales of Large Lakes, Arctic Winds, and Recurrent Snows

Syracuse University Press, 2012.

Lake Effect: Tales of Large Lakes, Arctic Winds, and Recurrent Snows explores the phenomenon of lake-effect snow and its import in seven engaging, concisely titled chapters: Recipe, Discovery, Prediction, Impact, Records, Change, and Place. Released in late September by Syracuse University Press, the book revisits atmospheric cartography, a theme I had examined a decade ago in Air Apparent: How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict, and Dramatize Weather. Written for a laic audience, the new book looks at lake-effect snow through multiple lenses: meteorological, historical, and societal as well as cartographic.

I was interviewed by Syracuse Post-Standard writer William LaRue, who covers the local book scene. The story ran in the Sunday, September 16 edition, a day after the Press’s official release date. Though a nice piece, it was marred by an accompanying photo in which I looked as if my glass eye were about to fall out. (No, I don’t have a glass eye, but apparently I can fake it by trying very hard not to blink.) Eleven weeks later the Post-Standard ran my own op-ed, headlined “Syracuse University geographer urges us to celebrate Central New York's seasons,” in the Opinion section for Sunday, December 2, with a quite decent headshot taken by SU’s official photographer.

In November, with the snow season approaching (at least in a normal year), I had a TV appearance on 9WSYR’s morning “Bridge Street” program (Friday, 11/2), and seven book signings: at Barnes & Noble in DeWitt, NY (Thursday, 11/1), the DeWitt Community Library (Monday, 11/12), River’s End Bookstore in Oswego, NY (Thursday, 11/15), RiverRead Books in Binghamton (Friday, 11/16), Creekside Books & Coffee in Skaneateles, NY (Monday, 11/19), Barnes & Noble in Pittsford, NY (Tuesday, 11/27), and the Syracuse University Bookstore (Wednesday, 11/28).

Lake Effect is selling well. It's a good read for anyone interested in our unique weather, and it makes a great gift for friends and relatives who live a warmer climate and think Central New York's weather is brutal. As I wrote in my op-ed, our seasonality is delightful and lake-effect snow is more a resource than a burden.

No Dig, No Fly, No Go: How Maps Restrict and Control

University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Some maps help us find our way; others restrict where we go and what we do. Rooted in ancient Egypt’s need to reestablish property boundaries following the annual retreat of the Nile’s floodwaters, restrictive cartography saw a resurgence in twentieth-century North America as governments at many levels sought to regulate activities as diverse as excavating, fishing, hiking, building a house, opening a store, locating a chemical plant, flying a plane, or painting your house anything but regulation white with black shutters. Told with insightful examples that include other eras and regions, the story of the restrictive map leads in many directions. Restrictive maps have been indispensable in settling the American West, claiming slices of Antarctica, protecting fragile ocean fisheries, and keeping sex offenders away from playgrounds. But during one of the blackest moments in American history, cartographic exclusion orders helped send thousands of Japanese Americans to remote detention camps.

Coast Lines: How Mapmakers Frame the World and Chart Environmental Change

University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Combing maritime history and the history of technology, Coast Lines charts the historical progression from offshore sketches to satellite images and explores the societal impact of coastal cartography on everything from global warming to homeland security. Returning to the form of his celebrated Air Apparent, Monmonier ably renders the topic of coastal cartography accessible to both general readers and historians of science, technology, and maritime studies. In the post-Katrina era, when the map of entire regions can be redrawn by a single natural event, the issues he raises are more important than ever.

From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame

University of Chicago Press, 2006.

From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow probes a little-known chapter in American cartographic history: the intersecting efforts to computerize mapmaking, standardize geographic names, and respond to public disgust over racially and ethnically charged feature names added to the national map in earlier, less sensitive times. A diverse selection of naming controversies, within and outside the United States, provides a foundation for examining the role of maps and geographic databases in revealing offensive toponyms and the opportunities for public participation in authoring, reviewing, and revising cartographic content.

Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection

University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Mariners were the biggest beneficiaries of the Mercator projection, even though they took more than a century to appreciate the projection’s prowess in converting a clear-cut sailing route with a constant bearing—navigators call this a rhumb line—into a straight line. The projection’s popularity among nineteenth century sailors led to its overuse, often in inappropriate ways, for wall maps, world atlases, and geopolitical propaganda. Although valuable for navigation and comparatively effective in portraying shape and angles, the Mercator map infamously inflates area in poleward regions. Its misuse declined markedly by the late 1940s, but three decades later it became the basis of the ‘map wars’ in which disciples of German historian Arno Peters traded barbs with cartographic scholars and professional mapmakers who resented the challenge to their accomplishments and integrity.

Spying with Maps: Surveillance Technologies and the Future of Privacy

University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Widely available in electronic and paper formats, maps offer revealing insights into our movements and activities, even our likes and dislikes. In Spying with Maps, I look at the increased use of geographic data, satellite imagery, and location tracking across a wide range of fields such as military intelligence, law enforcement, market research, and traffic engineering. Could these diverse forms of geographic monitoring lead to grave consequences for society? To assess this very real threat, I examine how geospatial technology works, what it can reveal, who uses it, and to what effect.

How to Lie with Maps

University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Originally published to wide acclaim, this lively, cleverly illustrated essay on the use and abuse of maps teaches us how to evaluate maps critically and promotes a healthy skepticism about these easy-to-manipulate models of reality. I show that, despite their immense value, maps lie. In fact, they must.

To show how maps distort, I introduce basic principles of mapmaking, offer entertaining examples of the misuse of maps in situations from zoning disputes to census reports, and cover all the typical kinds of distortions from deliberate oversimplifications to the misleading use of color.

The second edition is updated with the addition of two new chapters, 10 color plates, and a new foreword by renowned geographer H. J. de Blij. One new chapter examines the role of national interest and cultural values in national mapping organizations, including the United States Geological Survey, while the other explores the new breed of multimedia, computer-based maps.

Air Apparent: How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict, and Dramatize Weather

University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Weather maps have made our atmosphere visible, understandable, and at least moderately predictable. In Air Apparent I trace debates among scientists eager to unravel the enigma of storms and global change, explain strategies for mapping the upper atmosphere and forecasting disaster, and discuss efforts to detect and control air pollution. Fascinating in its scope and detail, Air Apparent makes us take a second look at the weather map, an image that has been, and continues to be, central to our daily lives.

“Borrowed Borders”

Glimpse: the art + science of seeing, no. 8 (Autumn 2011): 14-21.

Bushmanders and Bullwinkles: How Politicians Manipulate Electronic Maps and Census Data to Win Elections

University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Written from the perspective of a cartographer rather than a political scientist, Bushmanders and Bullwinkles examines the political tales maps tell when votes and power are at stake. I show how redistricting committees carve out favorable election districts for themselves and their allies; how disgruntled politicians use shape to challenge alleged racial gerrymanders; and how geographic information systems can make reapportionment a controversial process with outrageous products. I also explore controversies over the proper roles of natural boundaries, media maps, census enumeration, and ethnic identity. Raising important questions about Supreme Court decisions in regulating redistricting, I ask whether the focus on form rather than function may be little more than a distraction from larger issues like election reform.

Cartographies of Danger: Mapping Hazards in America

University of Chicago Press, 1997.

No place is perfectly safe, but some places are more dangerous than others. Whether we live on a floodplain or in "Tornado Alley," near a nuclear facility or in a neighborhood poorly lit at night, we all co-exist uneasily with natural and man-made hazards. As I show in this entertaining and immensely informative book, maps can tell us a lot about where we can anticipate certain hazards, but they can also be dangerously misleading.

Important as it is to predict and prepare for catastrophic natural hazards, more subtle and persistent phenomena such as pollution and crime also pose serious dangers that we have to cope with on a daily basis. Hazard-zone maps highlight these more insidious hazards and raise awareness about them among planners, local officials, and the public.