The history of nautical charts

What are nautical charts?

Nautical charts are relatively young compared to maps. Their development was dependent on the existing geographical and technical knowledge of depth measurement and navigation as well as existing mapping and printing methods.

Historical development of nautical charts

First of all, there were sailing directions based on the experience and estimates of seafarers, so-called sailing instructions, which can be traced back to ancient times. They contained the nautical information necessary to sail safely from one port to another. Peculiarities of coastal waters, fairway conditions, approaches, port entrances with reefs, shallows and sandbanks or landmarks important for orientation were collected and passed on in this way. This information was often handed down by word of mouth or with the help of sketched illustrations. During this period cardinal directions, signs of the zodiac, coastal formations, natural conditions and distances in days and nights were used for orientation purposes.

The first maps, so-called Portolan maps, were first mentioned around 1270. They mainly represented the Mediterranean Sea and Southern Europe. The oldest sailing instructions of the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts appeared around 1450 in Flanders. They contained the most important trading centres around the Baltic Sea. These were important for merchant shipping in Northern Europe, which was very important during the time of the Hanseatic League.

During the 15th and 16th centuries Dutch, Frisian and Hanseatic sailors probably shared their experiences with each other. These collections were first reproduced in writing rooms and later distributed by printing. Initially, nautical charts and books were produced by private publishers, among others in the Netherlands and Sweden. At the end of the 17th century, the focus of nautical chart production shifted to France, where the oldest hydrographic service still in existence today was founded. Further hydrographic services were soon established in the seafaring nations Sweden, Denmark and Great Britain.

The development of German nautical charts

Although the first nautical charts for the North Sea and the Baltic Sea were produced as early as the end of the 18th century (especially in the Netherlands and Sweden), there was still a long way to go before German nautical charts were established. At the beginning of the 19th century, German cities along the North Sea published their own nautical charts. These were restricted only to the navigation to their own ports and their quality did not match the existing charts of other nations. A good example for this is the oldest map in the BSH’s chart archive from 1825.

The situation changed when the Prussian state began publishing nautical charts in Germany. From 1841 to 1843 the Prussian Ministry of Trade published "Prussia's Sea Atlas" of the Baltic Sea, from 1858 to 1859 the Prussian Admiralty published the "Sea Atlas of the Jade, Weser and Elbe Estuaries". From 1861 the Hydrographic Bureau, established at the Prussian Navy, took over responsibility for the production and publication of German nautical charts.

In 1902 the Reichstag granted 2 million Reichsmark to expand the German nautical chart series to 2,400 nautical charts over the following ten years. 508 nautical charts were available at the beginning of the First World War. By 1918 this number had risen to 664. In 1963 the nautical chart series of the German Hydrographic Institute consisted of 931 nautical charts.

How do nautical charts get their numbers?

There is no uniform and logical order structure of nautical charts. Some charts (especially approaches to important German North Sea ports) have the same number from the beginning, in other areas the chart number has changed several times. In addition, chart numbers may have been used for different sea areas over time. Therefore, in addition to the chart number, it is also necessary to specify the geographical area. The publication history of a chart can be traced through printed nautical chart catalogues and is included in our online catalogue.

What do the symbols and abbreviations mean?

In the past many sailors could not read and write very well. Therefore graphic representations played an important role in nautical charts and the associated sailing instructions.

Since 1883 overviews of the symbols and abbreviations used in German nautical charts were published. Nowadays, the symbols and abbreviations contained in nautical charts are used uniformly on an international basis.

International nautical charts

Nautical charts used to be regarded as particularly valuable information. Their production was expensive and time-consuming. While today’s nautical charts are always bilingual in English and the respective national language, it used to be important for sailors to be able to read the existing charts in their own language. One goal of the 1902 expansion of the German nautical chart series was the creation of "German charts for German ships". The sea areas of many former German colonies were surveyed for the first time by German ships at the beginning of the 20th century.

Until 1994, the BSH published nautical charts of sea areas all over the world. A lively exchange of information and data between international hydrographic services has existed for decades in the interest of the safety of shipping. Over time this has resulted in the development of an international nautical chart series. In accordance with international agreements, each country issues charts of its own coastal waters that meet international standards. From 1994 onwards, the German charts of international waters were gradually withdrawn. Since 2015 we only produce charts of the German North and Baltic Sea coastal waters and adjacent foreign territories.

Additional Information


Maritime Library – Rostock +49 381 4563-601

Use of the archive

The nautical chart archive is located in the library in Rostock. Here you will find information about opening hours, service and equipment of the library.


Historical development

Deutsche Seewarte

From Norddeutsche Seewarte to BSH