10 best history apps for iPhone and iPad

12th May 2013 | 13:01

10 best history apps for iPhone and iPad

Handy apps for history buffs

The days when history was considered a lifeless, irrelevant subject are long gone. Today, people understand the importance of history, both from a global perspective and in terms of our everyday lives. History is about who we are and where we came from, and when it comes to bringing the past alive, your iPhone and iPad are the perfect tools for the job.

History apps allow you to combine the best of all worlds, giving you access to all the key details of a past period while allowing you to explore it through photos, video and even interactive 3D. If television made history popular again, your iPad allows it to express itself fully.

Despite the fact that apps were made for showcasing history, there aren't that many historical apps out there. Thankfully, the emphasis has been on quality rather than quantity, as the ten apps in this roundup demonstrate.

Some allow you to explore the period with the aid of text, photos and videos, neatly arranged in a logical, temporal order. There are also apps that invite you to re-visit the past and explore historic locations, whether it's the Giza Plateau in Egypt with its collection of tombs, pyramids and the Sphinx, or the city of Rome, all in breathtaking, interactive 3D.

Throw in some useful reference apps covering everything from the British monarchy to a list of museum and archaeological sites worth visiting, and you have a collection that will appear to every type of historian, from academics to hobbyists.

We've got slices of history for every one of you to enjoy!

1. Timeline World War 2 with Dan Snow

A complete and detailed multimedia guide to the tragic world conflict

Price: £6.99 / $9.99
Works: with iPad

Timeline

Dan Snow's TV series covering all of World War II was a ratings smash, and this app, although developed in conjunction with it, is far more than a simple companion app. The app might not yield the same amount of detail as a history book would, but it's certainly more engaging, and easier to dip in and out of. And despite the lack of depth compared to an academic book, Timeline World War II does more than simply provide an overview of the subject.

As its name implies, all of the events are organised by date, accessible through a timeline view that can be enlarged for more daily detail, or shrunk for more of an overview. You can also switch to a map view, which makes it easy to see how the war first spread and then developed at any point during the conflict. And thanks to a handy - and surprisingly comprehensive - set of filters, you can focus on specific places or aspects of the war, too.

The actual facts aren't too heavy on detail - short, telegram-like missives in some cases, longer typewritten notes in others - and many come accompanied with both photos and video clips (over 100 of the latter). Some video clips even offer you the choice of listening to the original soundtrack or choosing to hear Dan Snow's analysis instead.

Like many of the apps in this roundup, the app requires an awful lot of space on your iPad - 750MB in fact - but this helps demonstrates its sheer depth and breadth. An iPhone version is in development, as is Timeline Battle Castles.

2. Virtual History - Roma

An interactive tour of ancient the Roman Empire's ancient capital city

Price: £5.99 / $8.99
Works with: iPad

Roma

This takes you on an tour of ancient Rome through the medium of an interactive magazine. Rather than present its wealth of information about Rome as a series of dry facts, static images and the odd bit of video, Virtual History - Roma throws in some groundbreaking interactive tools such as the bubble viewer, which lets you explore the ancient city in 3D by moving around and tilting your iPad. You'll also find 3D objects to manipulate and overlays allowing you to see how parts of Rome changed over time.

The app is split into sections, from major public works and the army to globalisation and the fall of the empire; tap one, and then move between pages by swiping your finger. Each page is self-contained, packed with text and imagery giving you plenty of history to work your way through, with the interactive elements dotted around. It's beautifully presented and laid out, although it would be nice to be able to magnify the text on certain pages.

However, if you're looking for an immersive way to re-examine the history of this powerful civilisation, then Virtual History - Roma is a must-have. Other Virtual History guides have also been released, covering Leonardo's Last Supper painting and the Italian city of Florence.

3. Building Titanic

Avoid that sinking feeling with this incredible look back at RMS Titanic's construction

Price: Free
Works with: iPad

Titanic

Building Titanic concentrates on the ship's construction, and what the engineering feats involved represented at the time. Backed by the National Geographic Channel and James Cameron, the app's success comes as no surprise, superbly capturing the detail of Titanic's genesis from plans to completion.

There's a timeline covering key points during Titanic's construction, from approval of the ship's design and laying of the keel to the completion of the building and fitting-out process. A representative model of the ship as it takes shape appears at each point, and moving backwards and forwards through the timeline sees it rising up or disappearing back depending on the direction of travel.

As you move between each key event, you'll see + symbols appear over various parts of the screen - tap one to learn more about specific parts of the ship's construction, including design choices that would ultimately cost lives. The text doesn't go into any great depth, but provides a good summary of that part of the ship-building process, and is accompanied by images, or in some cases, video footage.

4. NHM: Evolution

Compressing 600 millions years of natural history into one app

Price: £9.99 / $13.99
Works with: iPad

NHM: Evolution

It seems like a daunting task, but when you've got the Natural History Museum behind you, you've every chance of success. This app gives you everything you could want to know about the earth's history, and provides you with a number of different ways of accessing it.

Timeline gives you an overview of the major periods covered - including eons and eras, while Timeglobe lets you view the changing face of the Earth's mass using a 3D globe.

The most impressive section is, however, the Timeband, which stitches together 100 artworks depicting the earth's evolution through species and landscapes. Tap on any part of the screen to reveal pop-up details and access to great swathes of information and illustrations. Throw in an interactive 3D fossil exhibition, tutorial videos and library containing potted biographies of evolutionary pioneers, and you could easily lose yourself in this app for an epoch or two.

5. Pyramids 3D

Take a virtual 3D tour of famous Egyptian pyramids and tombs

Price: £9.99 / $13.99
Works with: iPad

Pyramids

If you're a fan of Egyptian history then this is a must-have, providing an interactive 3D tour of the world-famous Giza Plateau, home to the Great Pyramid, Great Sphinx and numerous tombs. The app allows you to view many of these in interactive 3D, providing an expert's audio introduction to each landmark before allowing you to explore.

You can manually move between chambers, but a number of shortcuts exist to help you quickly jump to the areas of most interest. The app also comes with two additional sections: a gallery of virtual objects you can tilt, rotate and zoom into as you read their descriptions, plus a traditional book outlining a brief history of Egypt before focussing on Giza.

It's an atmospheric, comprehensive guide to this renowned landmark, but there's a price to be paid: the app weighs in at a gargantuan 1.4GB, making it the largest app here.

6. Streetmuseum: Londinium

Take a trek around London and discover its Roman origins

Price: Free
Works with: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad

Street Museum

This is the second 'Streetmuseum' app from the Museum of London, designed to act as an interactive guide to accompany a walking tour around central London. As its names implies, this app focuses on the city's Roman origins.

Londinium's fate was tied in with Rome's occupation of Britain - it flourished during the occupation before fading into obscurity when the Romans left - and an introductory series of slides provides an overview of its entire timeline. Then it's off to an interactive map where ancient landmarks, including the border of the old city walls, are overlaid on London's modernday streets.

Tap on points of interest - represented by purple and red pins - to uncover artefacts or check out landmarks with the help of photos, sounds and even video clips courtesy of the History Channel. Overall, it's a well-presented app, simple to navigate and, of course, a great advert for the Museum of London.

7. Today in History

Find out key historic events, births and deaths on any day

Price: Free
Works with: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad

Today in history

The problem with many 'today in history' apps on the store is that they tend to be Anglo-centric, so of little use to those of with a wider interest. There's no danger of that with this app, which spreads around 100,000 historic events worldwide across the year, plus has room for notable births, deaths and holidays for good measure.

The presentation is basic, but easy to read and follow. By default the current day is selected, but you can easily switch to any day of the year, with the selected date's events listed in chronological order, most recent first. Births, deaths and holidays are accessible from their own buttons, where you'll also find a search tool, allowing you to tie specific events to the day they occurred.

The events aren't covered in much depth - a sentence or two typically - but tap one and you'll be given a list of related search terms. Tap one to view its corresponding Wikipedia entry. The app also has options for commenting on events and adding your own events. There is a separate iPhone version.

8. The British Monarchy

Your one-stop guide to the Kings and Queens of England and Scotland

Price: 69p / 99¢
Works with: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad

Monarchy

This app provides a comprehensive guide to each of the monarchs who've reigned over England and Scotland since the 8th Century. You can browse (or search) by name or view a chronological list, and tapping a monarch reveals key details and a lengthy biography taken from Wikipedia.

From here you can add the monarch to a list of favourites for easy access later, plus attach your own notes. Tap the thumbnail image in the top right-hand corner to view more images and web links through Google searches. It's a handy reference guide to anyone who loves their political history - the biographies are detailed, and will keep you occupied for hours, although it's a shame they don't include all the citations found in the original Wikipedia articles. Hopefully the lack of Welsh representation here might be rectified in a future update.

9. Armchair Archaeologist

A guide to the major archaeological sites and museums in Britain

Price: £2.99 / $4.99
Works with: iPad

Armchair Archaeologist

Even the best apps can't be a substitute for the real thing, which is where Armchair Archaeologist comes in. This - inspired by Channel 4's Time Team - lists major sites of historical and archaeological significance stretching back from modern times to the Palaeolithic era, using Google Maps to help you locate them ahead of a visit.

The app allows you to browse by place - TV sites, monuments or museums - or eras. Choosing an era lists all places from that period - tap one to see it on the map. Each era also comes with Info and Timeline tabs to give you a more rounded view.

If you're looking for detailed information about each site you'll be disappointed - a sentence or two summary is as good as it gets, but Armchair Archaeologist works without an internet connection, so can be used on the road, and acts as a handy launching pad.

10. MFA Coins

View ancient coins in exquisite detail on your iPad

Price: Free
Works with: iPad

MFA Coins

Coins are a valuable historic resource, particularly with older civilisations when other evidence is thin on the ground. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has an impressive collection of ancient coins and this app does a first-class job of displaying them, providing a template for other virtual exhibitions to follow.

The collection contains hundreds of coins, divided into two categories. Grecian covers all pre-Roman civilisations, so organises its coins geographically; Roman coins are displayed chronologically. Tap one to view it up close - both sides of each coin have been photographed in high resolution, allowing you to zoom in to appreciate their beauty and fine detail. You can also view an information panel providing key details and some historical context. There's also a timeline view available for reading up a quick history of coins.

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