Rhodes trip: Inventor was decades ahead of GPS guidance

Gilmore's showcase of Kalamazoo-made cars isn't its only tribute to nearby creativity | Larry Edsall photos
Gilmore’s showcase of Kalamazoo-made cars isn’t its only tribute to nearby creativity | Larry Edsall photos

Enter the Gilmore Car Museum these days and you are greeted by a display of vehicles produced in nearby Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“Kalamazoo: The Other Motor City” is the title of the exhibit that includes several Checkers, one of them from the late 1970s/early ‘80s television series Taxi, as well as assorted vehicles by Roamer, Dort, Handley and Barley, as well as a 1903 Michigan, and even a re-creation of the 1915 Cornelian Speedway Racer, built by the Block Brothers Machine shop and raced at Indy by none other than Louis Chevrolet.

J.B. Rhodes and his patent
J.B. Rhodes and his patent

Kalamazoo also was the home of the ideally named Leland Goodspeed, who in 1921, on the sands at Daytona Beach, set a world land speed record in a Roamer, and who later served as chief engineer for Checker.

Yet another Kalamazoo citizen with a perhaps surprising tie to automobiles even today was Jay B. “J.B.” Rhodes, who is remembered in a special exhibit tucked into a corner of the museum’s historic Steam Barn.

Rhodes was known as “Kalamazoo’s Edison” and held more than 230 U.S. patents. In 1891, Rhodes, then 24 years old, built and drove a steam-powered wagon in hopes of providing easier transport from Kalamazoo to the weekend resorts on Gull Lake, a dozen miles northeast of the city.

Among other inventions were a metal spout that turned an ordinary glass home-canning jar into a clean way to add oil to an engine, as well as razor blades, fishing lures, a device for crushing gravel to produce smoother roads, and a rail-car dumping system that was used in the building of the Panama Canal.

Rhodes also built what some now recognize as the forerunner to the global positioning routing system so many of us now rely on as we drive from place to place.

On October 10, 1911, Rhodes received U.S. Patent 1,005,474 for his Route Indicator, which he produced as the Rhodes Pathfinder: A Perfect Mechanical Road Guide.

In the early days of motoring, books were produced with detailed driving directions, such as drive three miles to the red-brick tavern, then turn left and drive eight miles to the big oak tree, then turn…

That worked if there were a passenger along to share those directions with the driver, at least during daylight hours. Rhodes sought a more useful alternative, so he invented his Pathfinder.

Rhodes' pathfinding device
Rhodes’ pathfinding device

The Pathfinder, which looks sort of like the cryptex in the movie, The Da Vinci Code, was housed in a brass tube about 3 inches in diameter and maybe a foot long. It came with a bracket that mounted to the steering column. Inside were a series of several dozen dials that could be set to provide various directions. The device was linked to the odometer and powered by the car’s electrical system.

Rhodes’ thought was that you would take your route book, open the Pathfinder, and set the various dials to duplicate the written instructions. Then, as you drove, the dials would turn and instruct you through various bell-like sounds when to turn.

Rhodes offered a 5-year guarantee with each Pathfinder.

However, the device was so complicated to program that only a few likely were sold.

Rhodes Pathfinder advertisement
Rhodes Pathfinder advertisement

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