John Byron Plato’s Clock System Maps and Rural Directories: Success or Failure?

Authors: Mark Monmonier*, Syracuse University
Topics: History of Geography, Cartography, Rural Geography
Keywords: history of cartography, rural isolation, wayfinding, community identity
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 4
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


John Byron Plato (1876–1966), a livestock farmer in Semper, Colorado, about nine miles north of Denver, invented a wayfinding strategy that would reduce rural isolation by giving farmers a “real address.” The inspiration for his “Clock System” occurred in 1914 after he lost the sale of some calves because the prospective buyer could not find his farm. In 1915 he patented a georeferencing strategy based on a map and directory. Each rural residence was a unique symbol on a map that divided a county into “blocks” delineated by multiple local frameworks of concentric circles and sector divisions, each anchored at a locally important business center. A related “rural directory” listed householders alphabetically along with their Clock System address. After failing to interest the Post Office Department in the system, Plato allowed a slick promoter to exploit his idea with a business plan that never took hold. He then moved to Ithaca, New York, where he set up a mapping business with the support of agriculturalists at Cornell University. Between 1919 and 1930 his firm published Clock System maps for 14 counties and several towns in Upstate New York and one county in Pennsylvania.
This paper explores the extent to which Plato succeeded or failed. Although I argue that the Compass System businessmen who rebooted his map-and-directory system a half decade after he left Ithaca no doubt validated the Clock System concept, varied factors emerged to resist, if not fully overcome, the rural isolation Plato had sought to remedy.

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