According to TV shows and films such as Dr Who and Back To The Future, would-be explorers of the fourth dimension need at least 1.21 gigawatts or a large blue police box to get anywhere. But a new iPhone application developed in Scotland could simplify the whole process.

Walking Through Time is a new app created by academics at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA). It applies the satnav technology used by Google Earth, but instead of pinpointing where the user is on a current map, it shows where they would have stood two centuries ago.

The app superimposes a selection of old maps on to the current street layout so users can walk along a trail through 19th-century meadows that have been paved over, follow long-abandoned 20th-century railway lines, or explore a cluster of Victorian houses that have given way to contemporary developments.

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“The great fun is giving it to someone and then taking them to where a street doesn’t exist and say ‘walk’, but they can’t because there’s a new building in the way,” said Chris Speed, one of the developers and who teaches digital media at ECA’s architecture school. “That is when you get the ‘wow’ moment. You begin to realise the world has changed. You could also have someone driving into a wall because he has been using a map that was 200 years old.”

The app is currently at the pilot stage and is also only available to the higher education community. But Dr Speed and his fellow academics involved in the project, Professor Ian Campbell, an architectural historian, and Carlin Sutherland, a PhD student, hope to have the full app commercially rolled out within a year.

Until the Government releases its Ordinance Survey maps for free, which it is on the cusp of doing, currently the only city it can be used in is Edinburgh. Users can select from 11 maps dating back to 1850.

Dr Speed said the technology will come into its own when it can be used in cities that have transformed more radically than the capital.

“Cities other than Edinburgh have changed dramatically,” he said. “They have been bombed, and then town planners did more damage than the Luftwaffe. This will allow you to satnav through time and really see the difference. It’s really helping people travel into the past, see how things have changed, and visualise it in the mind’s eye.”

To develop the app thus far, the academics received £30,000 from JISC, a body that encourages universities to engage with digital technology. Once it goes national they see it being used by tourists to do walking tours through the UK’s long-vanished past.

“Imagine downloading Stephen Fry walking you through the path of the Great Fire of London, using maps from 1666,” said Speed. “It would be like jumping in a cab with a satnav that could take you through time. Where would you go?”

The app has already caught the eye of academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in Italy, who believe the technology could add a new tourist experience for ancient and well-mapped cities like Rome and Florence.