Chart wars: the invention of electronic sea charts and the battle to map the future of navigation

For hundreds of years, paper sea charts were an essential tool for marine navigation. The United Kingdom Hydrographic Office drew sea charts and saw itself as the guardian of the mariner's safety. Paper charts were an internationally recognised legal document, so important that international law defined how charts should be carried on board commercial vessels and how mariners should maintain them on board.
Yet in the 1970s a rival navigation technology emerged: electronic charts. In Canada, Italy, Norway and the USA competing scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs developed a new way of navigating without using paper, combining electronic position-finding equipment, a computer and digital graphic displays. For digital charts to become the legal equivalent of paper charts the International Maritime Organisation had to agree with computer engineers and new chart manufacturers. Who would map the future of electronic charts? The scientists, the mariners, the entrepreneurs or the hydrographers?
In November 2010 I was awarded a Sackler Short-term Fellowship in the History of Science and Technology by the National Maritime Museum to study the international developments, exchanges and rivalries which created digital charts. This builds on 4 ½ months of research which I undertook at the National Maritime Museum in 2010, funded by University of Michigan Museum Studies Program and the National Maritime Museum Internship Programme.

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World's first electronic chart, built for oil tankers on the Beaufort sea in the Canadian Arctic: Offshore Systems Precise Navigation System 1979

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First electronic chart from Italy: Navionics Geonav prototype 1984

No-one has written a history of digital charts yet they have seen enormous changes over the last 30 years. Today leisure sailors increasingly use electronic charts and other navigation apps on their mobile phones.
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Young people on an Ocean Youth Trust South sail training voyage show that using electronic charts is now child's play!

The future of electronic chart technology is integrated communication and navigation. Commercial chart producers now hope to create user generated content or "crowd-sourced" information layers on to electronic charts, and allow individual users - rather than only hydrographic offices - to highlight features which could be useful for the navigator.
Although electronic charts were first invented in the 1970s, the UK National Maritime Museum's chart collection does not have any electronic charts. My research project thus links the history of electronic charts with the Museum's current holdings in post-1950 electronic navigation instruments, a priority collection area for the Museum. By examining which instruments were interfaced with electronic charts, and which instruments were influential for the development of electronic charts, my project will recommend future acquisitions for the Museum's instrument and cartographic collections.