There Was an App for That | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
(Illustration by Samuel A. Minick)

There Was an App for That

Software applications changed the course of history

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So You Want to Conquer the Alps!
218 B.C.

Every elementary school student knows that Hannibal and his invading army wouldn't have gotten very far in their over-the-mountains sneak pillage of Rome had it not been for this invaluable app. It not only listed every site along the route capable of power-washing and de-icing elephants, but also gave up-to-date Blue Book prices for off-lease pachyderms in the Roman Empire. A popular app extra listed follow-the-bouncing-ball tunes and lyrics to 500-plus marching songs, credited with sufficiently lifting morale to keep Hannibal's half-frozen troops from mutinying.

Versailles VIP
A.D. 1774

Nobles summoned for their first appearances at the court of Louis XVI found this app indispensable. The clueless duc or comte could instantly punch up the directions for getting to the end of garden mazes before dark. The app was later upgraded to include minute-by-minute updates on the king's notoriously changeable moods, which even more notoriously left the uninformed courtier all too liable to be knighted one minute and beheaded the next.

Afterlife Styles
c. 1330 B.C.

Purchase of this app was restricted to Egyptian high priests and pharaohs on their deathbeds. It provided a who's who of the more than 4,000 resident deities on the Other Side. Accurate data on the powers of each Egyptian god and his/her favorite sacrifices and pet peeves was essential for the expired ruler to enjoy a hassle-free immortality. A bonus game enabled users to mix and match entirely new gods: an eagle's head on a dog's body, a cat's head on a crocodile's body, a woman's head on a serpent's body, a hyena's body sporting a young boy's head, ad infinitum. Not a single hieroglyph complaining about this app has ever been identified—high praise indeed!

The Everyman's Everyday Household Almanack of Combustive Intelligence
A.D. 1827

The first app to furnish an animated map of the English Midlands served a desperate need for accurate where-and-when predictions of the imminent explosion of the next boiler, locomotive, factory, forge, coal mine and experimental laboratory in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. During this time of feverish development of volatile steam power, no traveler in England felt completely safe without it.

There Be Dragons!
c. A.D. 1200-1300

Christopher Columbus famously relied on the best-selling Indies Here I Come! to suss out the quickest sea route to India—but earlier European ocean explorers relied even more heavily on this app, designed to help them elude innumerable perils. It sounded an alarm when ships verged too close to the edge of the earth, while flashing red lights at specific map coordinates identified sea-monster breeding grounds and dragon lairs.

It's Greek to Me
c. 300 B.C.

The ancient Athenians relied on this app for everything from helping soothsayers unscramble chicken entrails to providing a weekly update on which philosophers were holding what dialogues in which public squares. A handy RSS feed provided the latest philosophical insights in real time—as well as the most popular anti-Spartan jokes overheard at the Parthenon. That the most frequently visited app selection gives tips on the cleaning, mending and alterations of togas offers a telling insight into the Athens of the day. The least popular app feature, "How to paint an urn," failed, since each household already owned an estimated 233 urns and had not yet figured out a use for them.

Bruce McCall is a writer and artist in New York City.

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