During my childhood, before we undertook any long journey, my dad used to spend the evening beforehand doing his homework. He would sit at the dining room table with his trusty road atlas open in front of him. Working methodically, he would trace a route from where we were to where we ultimately wanted to be, noting down any major place names on the way.
During the journey, we would look out for direction signs to place names from Dad’s list. A medieval traveller would probably recognise the idea. If you want to get from Falmouth to London, you follow the milestones for Truro and then for Bodmin and so on. The system worked well, mainly because Britain has some of the clearest and best road signage in the world. Thanks to the efforts of Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert, the original designers of our modern road signs, roads are easy to identify and it is very easy to pick out direction signs for major towns.
With the advent of a piece of software called Autoroute, we were able to automate the route finding process. After firing up the software and choosing the start and finish points, the system would churn away for a moment before offering the fastest route between the two. If you were lucky enough to own a printer, you could print out a map and step by step directions to take with you. Eventually web sites became available offering route finding which negated the need to install any software.
Of course such levels of prior preparation are not strictly necessary. Armed with a trusty navigator and a road atlas, you could navigate on the go. It’s definitely better if I navigate and my wife drives rather than the other way around. During one trip where the roles were reversed, we were driving down a road beside a river heading for a town on the coast. I had this nagging feeling that we were on the wrong side of the river and every time we neared a bridge or a ferry, I asked my wife to confirm which side we were on. Each time, she insisted we were on the correct side and it was only when we physically ran out of road that she accepted that we were indeed on the wrong side.
When the US military opened up their network of Navstar satellites to public use, portable devices became available which could automatically pinpoint their location anywhere on Earth. As long as a satnav box can find enough satellites, because of the doppler effect, there will be a delay in communications with each one allowing the triangulation calculation to be made.
Smartphones now equip us with a phenomenal array of navigational tools. We can find out where we are, which direction we are facing and how to get to where we want to be. There are virtual reality apps which overlay labels on our screens to show exactly where nearby points of interest are. We can search for a nearby station or restaurant. We can even do all this using our voices alone.
Early explorers who navigated huge distances purely by the position of the Sun would probably find it highly amusing that we still get lost even with all these tools to help us.