How Mapmaker’s Anti-Piracy Methods Turned An Imaginary Town Into A Real Place

When was the last time you wondered if a map’s information had been lifted from another source? Probably never, because a map is a map is a map, right? You can’t really steal information about the physical world because it’s there for the taking. But it turns out there is such a thing as piracy in mapmaking, and one company’s attempt to keep copiers away brought an imaginary town into the real world.

On Krulwich Wonders, an NPR blog from Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich, there’s the story of Algoe, N.Y., a town that never existed except in the minds of mapmakers, until one day, it did.

See, back in days of yore when companies were turning out paper maps, they’d go to all the trouble of hiring a draftsman to make the thing, check all the spellings, design it with the right colors and whatnot, and make it your own.

To keep another company, say a tourism company that might want to peddle maps to customers, from snagging your hard work and claiming it as its own, companies need to have a way to prove in court that piracy has taken place.

So mapmakers at General Drafting Co. used a little trick back in the 1930s to make sure a map of New York State would remain in the rightful hands, by including a fictitious town called “Agloe” in the middle of nowhere. The name is made up of the initials of the director and his assistant, Otto G. Lindberg an Ernest Alpers.

Fast forward a few years when a little company you may have heard of, Rand McNally, put out its own New York state map. Bet you can guess what was hanging out upstate — yup, the town that wasn’t, Agloe.

At first Lindberg and General Drafting Co. thought they had an ironclad case all tied up against Rand McNally. But then Rand’s lawyers defended Agloe by saying that designers looked up the coordinates for Agloe and found a building on that spot called the Agloe General Store.

That means Agloe had to be real, Rand McNally said, because of course, the owners named the store after something. If Agloe didn’t exist, where did the name come from?

Well, it came from a map — the store’s owners spotted Agloe on a map distributed by Esso, which had licensed it from General Drafting Co. They figured that if there’s a town called that, might as well name the store in the area after it. And that was enough to get Rand McNally off the hook, it seems.

The store eventually closed, and the building itself is gone as well. But Krulwich notes that while working on the story, a Google search of its Maps used to bring up a result for Agloe — however, it’s been pulled since the article was published.

An Imaginary Town Becomes Real, Then Not. True Story [Krulwich Wonders]

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