13

Nowadays route planning applications are ubiquitous on smart phones, on embedded or dedicated devices, and on the web. With these applications, you input a destination and a starting point (or the system automatically geolocates your starting point). The system then automatically calculates the optimal route and presents it to you using natural language and/or a map.

I believe that the first route planner on the web was MapQuest (1996), but before that there were definitely offline tools; for all I know there may also have been online tools that predated the web, and were accessible via the dial-up networks of the day (such as CompuServe). What was the first such commercially released route planning software that could be used on a home computer? I know of one myself from 1983, which I'll post as a very tentative answer to my own question, though I suspect there may have been others that predated it.

I understand that the underlying technology is fairly simple; you just need to model cities and junctions as nodes in a graph, and roads as the weighted edges between them, and then run a shortest path algorithm such as Dijkstra's. Everything else is just bells and whistles. So I would not be surprised if simple, proof-of-concept tools appeared very early on as type-in programs in computing books and magazines. But what I'm actually asking about in this question is software that was sold on digital media, or as part of a subscription service to a dial-up network.

2
  • from an address to another address. In the US, city to city is take your HW to I-80, then get off on the HW that goes to where you want.
    – Mazura
    Commented Dec 17, 2022 at 3:40
  • I started planning road trips in North America using software for the Amiga in the late-80s; before that it was a visit to the AAA office to ask for a "TripTik".
    – Brian H
    Commented Dec 18, 2022 at 18:17

2 Answers 2

19

One candidate for the earliest such tool is Columbia Software's Roadsearch, a disk-based application for the Apple II and Commodore 64 that could calculate the shortest route between North American cities (selected from a database of hundreds of hard-coded entries) and provide a detailed summary (including the distance, driving time, fuel consumption, step-by-step directions, etc.) for on-screen viewing or printing. The publisher also offered Roadseach-Plus, which allowed users to customize the database with additional cities and road segments. Here are some screenshots and an ad:

Roadsearch ad from COMPUTE!'s Gazette

Roadsearch network map

Roadsearch main menu

Roadsearch route summary

The earliest reference I can find to RoadSearch in the computing press is in the May 1983 issue of COMPUTE!.

8
  • 3
    The first route-planning program I came across was NextBase’s AutoRoute, but that was released in 1988. Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 11:00
  • 2
    I received an, ahem, "free" copy of AutoRoute on a second-hand 286 in the early '90s .... this was in the UK. Never used it - I didn't have a car!
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 13:20
  • 9
    Gotta be careful of those choices. You might die of dysentery before you make it to your destination in Oregon. Er, wait...
    – Machavity
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 13:42
  • 1
    Generally this looks like a replacement for AAA's TripTik system of paper map slips they would bind together for you on request. They got you city-to-city, but not to an address.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 15:02
  • 2
    In that sense, Oregon Trail could be considered the first route planning system. Output: "Generally go west"
    – tofro
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 15:12
2

usable route planning software needs detailed maps in digital form, which were quite hard to come by in the early days and cost a fortune. Home computers also suffered from a bit of a lack of mobility, which is quite a problem for an application that you'd require most when you're on the move.

I recall programs that navigated you on the German Autobahn network and an early application for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum that claimed to know British Motorways, but I wouldn't call these usable route planning software (Because these did provide help where you really didn't need it...).

Navigation software only began to really flourish when GPS became available and PDAs grew powerful enough to hold sufficiently detailed maps and proper software in the early 1990s. TomTom (initially Palmtop) and Falk offered the first useful PDA applications with proper map material in the early 2000s. (And navigation software soon became the killer app for PDAs)

3
  • 13
    I guess your notion of "usable" must be different than that of me and the other users of pre-GPS, pre-smartphone route planning tools. In the mid-1990s I regularly used services like MapQuest and Map Blast to plan trips in advance and print directions out to take with me in the car. And Roadsearch got good reviews in the contemporary computing press, which indicates that at least the reviewers thought it was useful.
    – Psychonaut
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 12:23
  • 4
    Back in the late 1980's, the Boston computer museum had a display with a map of Boston and routing software. For fun, we asked it to route us from the museum back to the friend's house we were staying at. It was all well and good until the left turn off a bridge to the road below...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 15:01
  • 1
    Well, definitions of "usable" will definitely differ - Don't know where you at, but here in Europe people tend to know their way around the highway system and rarely used navigational aids. It's the smaller roads and cities where you tend to get lost.
    – tofro
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 15:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .