By Sandy Schaack Masinter
Mike Camarano, newly retired from the company after 45 years in its cartographic section, is something of a de facto AAA historian with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of its map-making legacy. His deep well of information comes partly from his own long career at AAA and the rest from a book he’s written that chronicles the organization’s cartographic history.
He’s an interesting guy with many stories to tell from his years in research, production and quality assurance at AAA, including a memorable four-year stint in the ‘70s as a road reporter. “I’d show up at a club office — this strange creature called a road reporter — and was often greeted with an enthusiastic curiosity,” he said.
For three months at a time, with one-month breaks in between to process notes, Camarano would drive 400 miles a day in the slow lane of interstates while jotting down highway information, mileages and scenery descriptions for the national office. The institution of the AAA road reporter endured until 2010. The final one, Mike Robb, did the job for 12 years and he traveled all 50 states and all 10 Canadian provinces, about one million miles in total.
The art of making maps has changed a lot over the last century, from hand-drawing them in ink on linen sheets, then etching roads and features on plastic-coated plates, to today’s digital files with geographic data behind every street, river and feature you see. What once required dozens of full-time staff in the pre-internet, analog age is now accomplished with just a few.
“Learning to be a good storyteller and recognizing your audience is important,” explains Sandra Catron-Kramer, manager of geographic information systems (GIS) and product certification at AAA National. “It’s important to have a passion for this type of work and find a way to communicate with graphics, maps and data… whatever it takes to tell a story in a way that makes your audience’s experience more meaningful to them.”
Whether it’s the excitement of unfolding a crisp new map to plan a cross-country road trip or tapping in an address on your phone for door-to-door directions to a place you’ve never been, maps definitely have a story to tell.
Just three years after AAA’s 1902 founding in New York, a pen-and-ink map depicting the roads on Staten Island became the first map branded with a AAA logo.
Five years later, by 1911, AAA brought the cartography operation in-house with the hiring of its first full-time draftsman. Street maps, regional maps, a state map (New York State was the first) and the nation’s first U.S. map soon followed, as did the early AAA strip maps (renamed TripTiks®) with their directional mileages and points of interest. TourBooks® came along in 1926, but even two decades before, AAA was linked with the Official Automobile Blue Book, a popular series that featured narrative directions and maps that helped popularize auto travel.
Popular automotive contests became annual events, like the Glidden Tour from 1905 to 1913. These competitions, or “national reliability” runs, were a AAA concept that showcased the endurance of the newfangled machines and, importantly, the need for more and better roads.
Caravans of “autoists” would test the abilities of their combustion-powered rides while negotiating through the rough roads. Directional signs were few and far between, so scout cars would toss heaps of confetti at pivotal crossroads to guide the drivers in the right direction.
The AAA pathfinder (later to become the road reporter) emerged during this period to trailblaze the most suitable routes for the tour on the uncharted roads. The pathfinder’s valuable mapping notes about road conditions, distances and more became a key source of data for AAA that lasted into the 21st century.
Artisans at Work
Before the Depression, AAA draftsmen made maps by hand-lettering and hand-drawing every element with an ink pen on a linen base. From their large drafting tables they’d sketch maps that were like pieces of art. During a visit to AAA National’s headquarters in Heathrow, Florida, Camarano pointed out fine examples, framed and exhibited, in a large conference room. “Each map was signed with the initials of the draftsman, like an artist signing his work.”
After World War II, maps at AAA were inked on a plastic base material called Loftrite, which replaced the delicate linen sheets and brought more of the printing process in house.
From the 1960s to the ‘80s, map drafting transitioned to scribing. The Loftrite base was replaced by translucent mylar plates covered in an orange emulsion. By setting the mylar on a light table, the scriber technician could etch away roads and other features into the orange coating using an array of three-legged handheld tools whose line thickness was accurate to a thousandth of an inch. Scribing was a big leap forward in standardizing quality as “the tools would always maintain the proper spacing versus an inking sample, which varies depending on the pen and technician,” Camarano explained.
Cary Hays, senior GIS analyst at AAA, has been with the company for 25 years. He started in the research department, fresh out of college with a geography degree,
“In the ‘90s, before the ubiquity of internet mapping, cartography was very compartmentalized,” he says.
“We had about 50 people in the entire department and there wasn’t really any sharing of duties. There were four manual cartographers scribing these huge sheets of mylar that would make their way to our on-site photo lab.”
Hays continues, “There were also a bunch of cartographers working on Intergraph workstations doing automated cartography, which was making maps on computers instead of manual scribing,” he said, adding “but there was no ‘information’ behind what you saw on screen.”
Map research was time-consuming. “It typically involved a lot of phone calls or sending a road reporter to check something out,” Hays shares. “I remember having to ask a club in Arizona to fax me a map of an area because you just couldn’t find it any place else.”
Throughout the ‘90s, AAA began digitizing its maps to make updating them quicker. But the biggest game-changer was the introduction of geographic information systems, known in the industry as GIS. It’s a computer mapping system that has the additional ability to store geographic data for all map features.
“GIS is digital with ‘intelligence’ behind what you see on the map,” Hays explains. “It allows us to use the data in multiple ways, from sheet maps of varying scales to diverse types of digital products.” In 1996, the first AAA map using the new GIS technology was the Atlanta map made for the summer Olympics.
Master databases of geographic information get updated from multiple sources. With the advanced tools available and the centralized database, the same person, who is called a GIS analyst at AAA, does the whole job. “We handle everything from start to finish. What once took two months to complete can now be handled in just three or four days if need be,” Hays says.
“Our analysts are experts in the field, with a focus on innovation and finding new ways to use GIS for our business,” adds Catron-Kramer. “I feel extremely blessed to have the great team that I have now.”