Top 5 Free History Apps

Tom Vivian, Archaeology Editor, The History Press

With Apple’s App Store and the Android Market have come a world of curiosities for those who love their history. Good free history apps have been a little slow in arriving on the scene, but finally there’s enough to justify a blog post counting down the top five.

All five are available from Apple’s App Store and one is available from both the App Store and the Android Market. Best of all, they’re all free!

5. History: Maps of the World

In at five is ‘History: Maps of the World’. This app’s been around for a while now and has notched up a decent mass of users mainly, I suspect, because of the surprisingly high entertainment value to be gleaned from an hour spent zooming in and out of high-res historical maps of far away places. The developer’s also produced a series of other historical map apps, grouped by region, so be sure to check them out if you enjoy this one.

Highlights include ‘France Under Louis XI’, ‘The South Pole 1894’, ‘Revolutionary Paris’ and ‘Wytfliet’s Map of the Southern Continent, 1597’.

4. British Library: 19th Century Books

Stepping things up a notch in the ‘scans of historical documents’ category is the British Library’s own ’19th Century Books’. Unbeknown to the casual passers-by on the Euston Road, the British Library’s team has been carefully scanning and processing thousands of pages of their literary gems for presentation in this, and their other, apps. Their fantastic work has meant that iOS device users can now view incredible rare and first editions of works such as The Sacred Places of Scotland by Roderick Lawson, M. Jones’ The Story of Captain Cooke’s Three Voyages Round the World (1870), and The Green Mountain Boys: A Story of the American War of Independence by Eliza Pollard (1896).

The content is neatly categorised under headings like ‘History of Travel’ and ‘History of the Americas’, and is based on the ‘freemium’ model whereby a limited, though rich, selection of content is available free while the full (and ever-expanding) catalogue is available to subscription users.

Note that these are not OCR scans of the text but full, high-resolution facsimiles of beautiful books, complete with plates, scribbled dedications and various stamps on the fly papers.

3. Museum of London: Street Museum

The Museum of London’s Street Museum app is a simple idea beautifully executed. On opening the app the user is presented with a map of London, courtesy of Google. An array of red pins punctuate the map which, when touched, open an image from the Museum’s archives, often revealing a striking insight into the past life of the area. A short passage of text accompanies each image to give a little context and draw the reader’s attention to details of particular note.

There’s a lot of social history here, so if you’re interested in the ordinary lives of people from times-gone-by then this is an app you should definitely check out. From the human tragedy of The Crawlers of Short’s Gardens (c.1877), to the Tony-Hancockesque day-dreamers of the Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street (c.1955), and the dapper gents of St Clement Danes (c.1930), this app really brings London’s past to life.

Projects like Street Museum show what great things can come about through creative partnership – in this case the MoL and its treasure-trove archive, with Google’s powerful mapping technology – and also that history can transform the way you think and feel about the places you thought you already knew.

Note: Though designed foremost for smaller devices, Street Museum works perfectly well on the iPad’s larger screen, though you’ll need a 3G enabled iPad to get the most out of the app’s geolocation service.

2. Rama

If the Museum of London’s offering gives you a taste for exploring history on foot, then Rama should be your next port-of-call. The concept is straight-forward: the app offers a large selection of walking tours on a diverse array of places and themes.

The tours take the form of a pin-pointed Google map (as with Street Museum) with images and text accompanying the waypoints. As the reader makes their way from point to point they are presented with elegantly written text and intriguing images, guiding them back in time to the realm of history they have chosen.

This is truly an app for a global audience and presents tours as diverse as ‘Rediscovering Luxor’, ‘Lincoln’s Washington’, ‘Artistic Paris 1900s’, ‘Discovering Pompeii’ and ‘Victorian Manchester’.

Though the Rama app is free to download, most of the tours are charged for (typically $0.99 to $2.99) though some are available for free, including the excellent ‘New Orleans in 1937’.

1. Street Museum: Londinium

At number one is Londinium, again from the Museum of London – though this time they’ve teamed up with the History Channel to produce an app on Roman London.

The app opens with a (skippable) intro, casting the reader back to the very beginnings of London and leading you through the city’s evolution from shanty frontier to crowded metropolis.

Though similar in concept to the first Street Museum, Londinium incorporates loads of extra interactive features, making it unquestionably the top history app of 2011. Exploring the map of Roman London is not simply a matter of touching the pin-points – the user is given the opportunity to really engage with the history and archaeology through which we understand the city’s Roman past.

From excavating Roman artefacts and watching reconstructions, to walking a tour of Roman London, this app has a lot to offer those interested in Roman history and archaeology.

Tom Vivian is the Archaeology Editor at The History Press. “We’ve been experimenting with lots of exciting digital projects, rolling out ebooks on a variety of subjects, and our first app’s coming out next year”. You can follow Tom and The History Press on Twitter: @tomvivian @TheHistoryPress