It makes perfect sense that this would be the company to put high technology on the map

Rand McNally & Co. Inc.: the map people.

The international authority that sometimes seems to set foreign policy by graphically recognizing countries that aren't always recognized politically.

The institution about which Bing Crosby once said, "I'm looking for a little uncharted lake where the fishing is so good that Rand won't even tell McNally about it."

Besides using electronics to produce sophisticated variations on maps, the company also is using computer technology in other facets of its business that are unknown to much of the public.

The world's largest supplier of airline tickets, Rand McNally also recently announced the advent of TicketChek, a system combining hardware, software and special inks to combat airline-ticket fraud and save hundreds of millions of dollars.

It was just one of a variety of products developed by the company over the years that combine sophisticated engineering with its traditional products. Besides the TicketChek system, which identifies stolen and altered tickets by using a light pencil to check a special coding, the company also has developed electronic maps for auto navigation systems, specialized maps for individual clients that mix demographics and other data, and a software package that allows clients to do their own mixing.

Auto navigation systems no longer are in the exclusive domain of a James Bond scenario. They exist, even if they don't duplicate the dashboard wizardry displayed in the movie "Goldfinger" 20 years ago. But the more sophisticated they get, the more they may rely on digitized map data, the kind supplied by Infomap Inc., a wholly owned Rand McNally subsidiary.

Such data also enable Infomap to provide custom maps to business clients, combining generic data with the client's own on a thematic map called, appropriately, THEMAP.

"Suppose you want to know how many people of a certain income level reside in your sales territory. We would put together census figures with your own territory boundaries and data so you can see exactly where your customer base is," said Francis Henigan, Infomap's president.

Henigan pointed to a U.S. map featuring, county by county, nine combinations of colors that told the viewer, at a glance, the national range of median household incomes and the distribution of age groups, according to the 1980 census. A bright yellow indicated a young, high-income population. An aging, low-income population came out as burgundy. He said any business or government organization could superimpose its own data on a theme map like this one.

"We have a palette of 4,096 colors or shades of colors to choose from," said Harry Grout, manager of digital cartography. "Of course, the data can really get skewed if you've got an underpopulated county somewhere in the West, where everyone's poor, except maybe one wealthy rancher."

Put THEMAP on a floppy disc, and it is available to users of microcomputers in an abbreviated form called STATMAP. For $250, a client can put a single type of census data on a monitor and add company data.

In November, Infomap plans to announce a more comprehensive mapping software package called RANDMAP, according to Henigan, who was president of a computer graphics services company before joining Rand McNally in January. Generic data also are to be available to customers on computer discs bearing the label RANDATA.

"RANDATA will include coordinated files showing things like state boundaries, county boundaries, Zip Code boundaries, a wide variety of geographies, economic statistics, demographic statistics, you name it," Henigan said.

One of Henigan's clients is Rand McNally itself. In a room down the hall from Henigan's office, a graphics plotter lines out a neighborhood on Chicago's Near North Side.

It features hotels, hospitals, fast-food restaurants, one-way streets, museums, libraries and Mobil gas stations. A color version of this experimental map someday could become part of the "Mobil Travel Guide," developed and published by Rand McNally.

In another corner of the low, flat building that has been Rand McNally's headquarters since the company moved to Skokie from downtown Chicago in 1952, Rick Tamraz queried a computer about the best way to get from Peoria, Ill., to Tucumcari, N.M.

Tamraz, a customer service representative for another subsidiary, Rand McNally-TDM, deliberately misspelled Tucumcari and was admonished by the dot matrix printer, which then provided a list of 10 New Mexico towns with similar spellings. Tucumcari was number two, between Tse Bonito and Tularosa.

Then, in response to another query, the printer spewed out the shortest route between Peoria and Tucumcari, then another list showing the fastest route.

Both lists are for the benefit of Rand McNally trucking clients who need to know the shortest route to bid for contracts and to invoice under Interstate Commerce Commission rules, and the fastest route to enhance on-time deliveries.

The MileMaker system, as it is called, also saves hours of calculations by trucking managers.

Just as travel agents know Rand McNally for ticket printing and security activities, so bankers know the company as the publisher of the "Rand McNally International Bankers Directory," which lists every bank in the noncommunist world -- 20,000 (or 70,000, including branches).

Rand McNally, serving as the official numbering agent for the American Bankers Association, assigns the numbers that appear on a check before the account number. The system was developed in 1911. When banking became one of the first industries to use data processing, so did Rand McNally.

Printing technology gave the company its start. A young Bostonian moved to Chicago in 1856 and brought his trade with him. Soon William H. Rand, a printer, hired an even more youthful Andrew McNally, who not long before had completed seven years as an indentured apprentice in County Armagh, Ireland.

Rand went on to manage, and then buy, the job printing shop of The Chicago Tribune, where McNally became foreman, and Rand McNally and Co. printed its first document, the annual report of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Co. The company's first map was of a single railroad, a page in the "1872 Railway Guide." Paperback books followed, predecessors of the children's books the company's publishing division prints now.

In 1899, Rand sold out to McNally. Today, Andrew McNally III is chairman of the privately held corporation. Its president is Andrew McNally IV.

Andrew McNally III maintains that the company still owes a debt to Rand for its name.

"The Rand name just adds something," he said. "If we'd been just McNally and Co., I'm afraid we wouldn't be as well-known today. Rand McNally sings a little bit."

He would get no argument from a young woman who, 50 years ago, was told if she wanted to become an entertainer, she needed a stage name. Legend has it that she happened to glance at a "Rand McNally Road Atlas." From then on she was known as Sally Rand.