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Sea Charts

History of Working Sea Charts


The earliest existing sea charts are manuscript portolans which appeared as early as the thirteenth century. These charts, drawn on vellum, show coastal outlines with inlets, rivers, and other such details, and they were used in conjunction with sailing directions. Initially they were drawn of the Mediterranean Sea, but later were extended further afield, even to include the new lands found in the Age of Discovery.

The first printed sailing guide to include charts was Lucas Waghenaer's Spieghel der Zeevaerdt, which was published in Leiden in 1584. This publication had profound consequences, for with its appearance and the consequent publication of other sea atlases, charts became readily available for merchants as well as naval captains. In 1588, an English translation of Waghenaer's work, The Mariner's Mirror, appeared and became immediately popular among English seamen, so much so that soon any practical navigation volume which included charts came to be called a "waggoner."

For about the next century, the Dutch dominated the chart publishing market. They issued a number of sea atlases in many editions. New charts were regularly added, but the old charts were mostly reused without updating. In the late seventeenth century, English publishers began to produce their own series of sea atlases, for instance John Seller's English Pilot series which appeared in the 1670s, but the French were the ones who came to dominate this trade by the late seventeenth century. Up to the middle of the eighteenth century, European sailors depended on sea atlases like these as well as manuscript charts that they obtained independent chartmakers.

It was the French who formed the first official, governmental mapping agency, with the Dépôt des Cartes et Plans de la Marine founded in 1720. This was followed in 1795 by Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty and then in 1811 by the U.S. Coastal Survey. While the charts of these government agencies tended to have the advantage of more funds for production and access to first-hand surveys, privately published charts still continued in demand by merchants and other private mariners. As has Susanna Fisher has written, it was the private charts rather than official Admiralty charts that were primarily used by the British merchant ships in the nineteenth century. "They were the preferred choice of merchant fleets, while, for most of the century, Admiralty charts were still regarded as specialist charts for the Royal Navy." (The Makers of the Blueback Charts, p.1)

Near the end of the eighteenth century a change took place in the nature of published sea charts. By that time charts using the Mercator projection--on which a straight line follows a straight compass bearing--were in general use, and that combined with advancements in marine survey techniques and position fixings meant that it became practical to plot one's course directly onto a sea chart. Charts in atlases were awkward to use for this purpose; what was needed were charts that could be laid flat to work on with navigational tools. Thus chartmakers began to publish more and more charts issued as separate sheets rather than in atlases.

These working charts needed to have lots of detail and to show a wide enough area to be of practical use. Thus the charts tended to be fairly large and they were typically rolled for storage and ease of laying out on the charting table. Official charts, for instance those issued by the British Admiralty, were printed on thick, expensive paper and so they survived reasonably well when used on board a ship. Private publishers, who couldn't afford the costly paper nor linen backing, found that they could give their charts added strength by backing them with the blue manila paper that was in common use for wrapping unbound pamphlets. Beginning just after the middle of the eighteenth century, "blueback" charts made their appearance. Later this term was applied to any privately published, separately issued sea chart, to distinguish them from officially produced charts which never appeared with this blue backing.

Separately issued sea charts, whether bluebacks or official charts, are historically of great significance, as it was these charts which allowed ships-the primary means of commercial, private and military transportation until the mid-nineteenth century-to navigate the seas and oceans of the world. These were the charts that were used by explorers, merchantmen, and naval captains and thus which oiled the wheels of history. Their desirability is enhanced by their great scarcity. This has two main causes. First, any sheet of paper being used on board a ship at sea was often subject to damage or even destruction. As well, it has always been considered important to destroy any out-of-date chart in case someone inadvertently might use it. An out-of-date chart can be extremely dangerous for ship and crew, so most were destroyed as soon as updated charts became available.

Much of the preceding information comes from Susanna Fisher's excellent The Makers of the Blueback Charts. A History of Imray Laurie Norie & Wilson Ltd. (St. Ives, England, 2001.) [Available from our reference bookstore]

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