Before There Was Google Maps

Katie Wood

The mapping of Australia’s roads began in some places before there were roads to speak of. In 1927 the Fiat Club of Western Australia sought help organising a tour from Perth to Melbourne. A Shell officer accompanied them, making detailed maps of the route and recruiting Shell resellers (dealers) to establish a distribution network. During the next five years, efforts were made to repeat the performance along the ‘Northern route’ to Darwin.

In a somewhat ironic start to the outback motoring industry, the refuelling stations were initially kept stocked by camel and donkey trains. In 1930, Shell launched the Overland Department followed in 1947 by the Shell Touring Service, one of the most developed and comprehensive mapping groups in Australia at the time. Or, as Shell put it in 1968 in the Shell Times, ‘Since the days when Shell announced that “it is safe to travel between Geelong and Melbourne” and “in the outback travellers need no longer fear from the natives”, the Touring Service has strived to supply the motorist with accurate maps and touring information.’

Without the help of satellite images and modern information technology, Shell employed local representatives to conduct regular tours of their area to keep up to date on road conditions as well as accommodation and tourist sites. These reports were then fed to the state offices of the Touring Service via telegraph or post and lodged in a card catalogue that contained an entry for every road in the state. This catalogue ensured that travellers who visited the Shell offices received timely and detailed information about the route they intended to take.

On our road trips today, we take for granted easy access to information about our destination and route. It is remarkable to think of the time and effort that was spent by Shell in providing these services before the development of today’s technology.


  1. ‘Around Australia in 280 pages’, Shell Times, vol. 7, no. 8, October 1968.
  2. ‘Horizons widen thru the Shell Touring Service’, Shell House Journal, April 1951.
  3. vG.F. James, ‘Broadbent, George Robert (1863–1947)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 7, Melbourne: MUP, 1979, pp. 417–418.
  4. ‘Maps in the making’, Together: The Shell dealer magazine, Mar.–Dec. 1961.
  5. ‘New motor pilot service’, Together: The house journal of the Shell organisation in Australia and New Zealand, no. 1, January 1930, p. 15.