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October 20, 2009 | last updated December 1, 2011 2:25 am
Portlandbiz

Westbrook map co. launches popular iPhone app

Photo/David A. Rodgers
Photo/David A. Rodgers
Charles Carpenter, founder of Historic Map Works in Westbrook, says his company has sold more than 200 iPhone apps

Imagine standing on a busy street corner, hitting a button on your iPhone, and seeing a map of that same corner 200 years ago, complete with names of former landowners, yellowed photos of the buildings around you and even information about your family's historic ties to the area.

A Westbrook company has released an iPhone application that can do just that. Since launching last week, Historic Map Works has sold more than 200 of the apps, called Historic Earth, and seen the app join the ranks of Apple's top 25 reference category iPhone apps.

"We're running neck in neck with the Chinese-to-English translator," company founder Charles Carpenter told Mainebiz. The app sells for $6, quite a premium over the typical fee of 99 cents. "The first two days we sold 170. We're getting a lot of blog responses."

The app is the handheld version of the firm's Historic Earth program, sort of the Google Earth of old maps. Historic Earth allows viewers to overlay antiquarian property ownership maps - drawn from a collection of 1.5 million - on top of a modern base map, lining up centuries-old streets and buildings with today's counterparts. Users can search the maps by address, keyword, town name and year.

Just last week, police in Michigan researching a decades-old cold case used the company's program to track down a suspect's properties and launch a search for buried bodies, Carpenter says.

Viewers can also add photos of homes or family members, making the Historic Earth a resource for genealogical research. For now, it's available for free on the company's website, and is attracting 300,000 visitors a month, Carpenter says. For $300 a year or $30 a month, unfettered access to premium content is available.

A rare book collector and former research fellow at Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook, Carpenter launched the first website in 2005. He now has 15 employees and has invested $4.5 million in the effort, and attracted distributors including National Geographic, ancestry.com and ProQuest, for the program's library edition. The company also sells printed reproductions to more than 400 galleries and the public.

For now, Historic Earth covers only North America, but Carpenter expects this week to add a collection of maps from the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education at the University of Southern Maine dating back to the mid-1400s. Of the 1.5 million maps the company owns -- collected from thousands of atlases Carpenter personally scooped up over the years -- only 173,000 have been loaded onto the site so far. "We've got a long way to go," Carpenter says.

But Historic Map Works has written automatic geocoding software that lines up old maps with modern maps based on geographic data like intersections and street addresses. The process typically takes up to 30 minutes per map at a cost of up to $15 each, but the company's software can geocode 100,000 maps a week for less than $1 each, Carpenter says. He predicts all 1.5 million maps to be finished as soon as next spring and expects to eventually license the software. He's far ahead of his closest competitor, which has only geocoded 150 maps so far.

But for now, users can resurrect old neighborhoods lost to time and paving crews at the touch of a smart phone. "We believe there is a consumer market for standing on a corner in New York, pushing a button and learning about the history of that corner," Carpenter says.

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