Rand McNally is the largest commercial map maker in the world. It started business in Chicago in 1856 as a partnership between William H. Rand and Andrew McNally. They started as a printing shop, printing train tickets and schedules for the various rail lines that crisscrossed through Chicago. Rand McNally found they could combine the routes and time tables provided by their clients into their own guides and sell those. They focused on a line of railroad guides with maps and timetables which North American travelers found indispensable.

America was growing rapidly, new train routes were constantly being added, companies were merging, and time tables need to be updated regularly. Unfortunately, the traditional engraving system was too slow to keep up with the pace of America's change. In 1872 they perfected map making using a wax engraving method. This allowed them to not only produce map engravings quickly but revise them rapidly and include very small text on their tables and maps. Taking advantage of this technology allowed Rand McNally to become America's biggest cartographic publisher.

Their original shop was destroy by the great Chicago fire of 1871. Rand McNally quickly reopened, buying the only printing plant to have survived the fire, and incorporated in 1873.

Rand McNally discovered that, however useful their train schedules were, lots of people were interested in only the maps. In 1876, Rand McNally expanded into pure map making. It started by publishing its famous Commercial Atlas and Marketing Guide. It's considered by many the most complete list of place names in the United States. Rand McNally has never ceased updating this guide. In 2002, it came out with the 133rd edition of this guide.

In 1885, it expanded its vision, both figuratively and literally, and started creating maps of the entire world. It published its first pocket atlas. In 1891 Rand McNally produced the first globe (as in the desktop spinning kind).

The introduction of the horseless carriage to North America started Rand McNally down the road of producing driving maps (which they called "auto trail maps" at first). By 1916 there were over 2,000,000 cars on America's errr "auto trails". While road systems connected various cities and states, there were not only no road atlases, but there was no organized naming convention. It was very hard to create maps for intercity/interstate roads that did not really have names or the names were long and changed from town to town ("well *spit* take a right at the red barn unnnn *spit* get on that one road *spit* unnnn stay on there for a spell unnnn *spit* I reckon' she'll get you to Missouri alright.").

A Rand McNally map maker named John Brink had a rather innovative and hands on approach. He was working on a map on how to get from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Cincinnati, Ohio. He numbered the roads on his map. He then loaded up his car with 400 numbered signs, drove his mapped roads from Michigan, through Indiana, and into Ohio, and planted the signs along the actual roadsides. Brink's solution began a national effort to number America's highway system. In 1924, Rand McNally came out with its first Rand McNally Road Atlas. It was not only the first complete American road atlas but the all time best selling map product. To date, it's sold over 150 million copies.

Rand McNally, no stranger to changing technology in its 150 year history, had to confront the rapidly evolving world of computers in the '90s (the 1990s that is). In 1994, it created a new media division to compete with companies releasing maps on CD and eventually the Internet.

Its move from a company that dominated the market through printing technology to one trying to dominate the market through computer technology proved to be a rough ride. Up until 1997 the company had remained, amazingly, a family business. For over a century there had always been a Rand or a McNally at the wheel. However, facing an uncertain future presented by computers and the Internet, the company sold itself to a somewhat clandestine group called AEA Investors, owned by heirs to the Rockefeller and Andrew Mellon fortunes. It was hoped this group could take it public and raise some serious capital to allow it to dominate the online world and compete with upstart MapQuest which, by the time Rand McNally had come online, was quickly locking up the major portals and freezing Rand McNally out of the space.

A fortunate turn of events happened for Rand McNally in 1999. AOL purchased MapQuest, which meant that it was unlikely AOL would let MapQuest power emerging competitors like Excite.com.

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