The other day, stuck in slow moving traffic on the M23, we fell to marvelling at the wonders of Sat Nav (this, despite the fact that it had failed to warn us we were about to join a tailback many miles long).  My friend wondered about the extent to which the course of history might have changed if our predecessors had possessed Sat Nav.  An intriguing idea; perhaps someone should write one of those ‘if only’ books?

I immediately thought of two dramatic examples.

In October 1707, Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell (love the name!), after 12 consecutive days lost in a fog at sea, called upon his navigators to put their heads together and decide where they were. The consensus placed the English fleet well clear of the treacherous rocks off the Scilly Isles.  However, a lowly sailor on one of the ships had kept his own reckoning of the fleet’s location and was so convinced they were in danger that he dared to approach the Admiral to make his concerns known.  Unfortunately, subversive navigation by an inferior was, at the time, forbidden by the Royal Navy so the Admiral had the sailor hanged on the spot for mutiny.  A short while later, the ships struck the rocks the sailor had warned about; four ships were lost and two thousand people drowned.

Apart from being a classic ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ story, this mishap, and other losses at sea, caused the British Government, in 1714, to offer a prize of £20,000 for a solution to the problem of how accurately to calculate longitude.  Eventually the prize was awarded to John Harrison, the inventor of the marine chronometer.  If Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell’s fleet had been fitted with Sat Nav (assuming they believed it!) many lives would have been saved including that of the hapless subversive navigator.

The second example that occurred to me was Sir John Franklin’s expedition, in 1847, to find the Northwest Passage.  Franklin, a Royal Navy officer and experienced explorer, and had been on three previous Arctic expeditions.  His fourth and last attempt was undertaken when he was 59.  The two ships, Erebus and Terror, became icebound in the Canadian Arctic and 128 men, including Franklin, perished.

Even if Franklin’s ship had been equipped with Sat Nav it might still have become icebound but it would have been relatively easy to locate their position and rescue the men before they died. As things turned out, numerous gallant attempts to find the whereabouts of Franklin’s crew failed.  Sat Nav would have saved an enormous amount of expense, time and effort and, quite possibly, would have aided a triumphant rescue operation.  I have a personal interest in Franklin’s ill-fated expedition because two of my distant relatives, Samuel and Thomas Honey, served on board HMS Terror and perished

These are only a couple of examples where Sat Nav would have saved the day.  There must be hundreds of other dramatic examples where the course of history would have changed if Sat Nav had been invented.

Mind you, Sat Nav might possibly have exacerbated the problems encountered by mountaineers, explorers, military leaders and the like.  Not long ago, on my morning walk, I came across a large lorry that had come to a halt half way along an unmade-up track that was totally unsuitable for vehicles.  As I drew alongside, the driver wound down his window and said, ‘Sat Nav, mate’.

No other explanation was necessary.


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