Caught Mapping: A Cinematic Ride Through the Nitty Gritty World of Vintage Cartography

Long before iPhones, Garmins, and Google Maps conspired to make cartographic sheep of us all, Chevrolet had a vested interest in glamorizing anything to do with four wheels, including the process that put maps in a supposedly adventurous, car-buying public’s hands. Caught Mapping (1940), like so many of the short, informative films the automotive giant engineered with director Jam Handy and “the cooperation of State Highway Departments,” has all the earmarks of its time:

Gorgeous black and white cinematography? Check.

Fetishistic regard for anything that might possibly be described as “the latest technology” (including a big sheet of acetate and a really big camera)? Check.

Jaunty male narrator sucking all the nonchalance out of period slang? Say, fella, what are you “driving” at? Check.

Of particular interest to those accustomed to navigating digitally is the sheer grittiness of the endeavor. Compare the early European explorer shown ponderously wielding a sextant to the perspiring road scouts (or “map detectives”) crisscrossing Death Valley in an un-airconditioned vehicle, chasing down the sort of construction-related detours or topographical developments that could render a paper map obsolete. One steers;  the other updates the most recently published edition in ink, impervious to such hazards as car sickness and bumps in the road.  Eventually, the eggheads in the lab take over, translating the intrepid road scouts’ fieldwork into a series of symbols and signifiers as mysterious as hieroglyphs to the modern viewer.

Technological advancements aside, it’s the hands-on aspect that proves most thrilling. Someone should make a movie about these guys for real.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.