• Trip Wolfskehl

A very brief history of America's nautical charts

Not too long ago almost all of our goods arrived to us by sail. Navigation by sea is now done mostly with the use of computer and GPS (global positioning systems) technology. However, there was a time when paper charts ruled the waves. What follows is a very brief history of American chart making (also called chart cartography) and the aesthetics of this special art and science.

Nautical charts--essential to good seamanship--are coastal maps showing water depth, navigational hazards, navigational aides (buoys, lighthouses, etc.), and land/topographical features. Despite the use of high-tech navigational wizardry, even today most countries still require vessels to carry paper charts.

U.S. chart making started just before the Revolutionary War, when the British mapped many of North America’s principle harbors for military and trade purposes, including them in one compendium called The Atlantic Neptune. This atlas created a solid foundation for the American coastal surveyors, and at the time it was the best sea atlas the world had seen.

In its early years of existence, America’s trade between the states and with other countries was growing exponentially. However, going to sea was a dangerous affair and shipwrecks were common.

The United States government’s first official foray into chart making began as an attempt to make coastal navigation safer, when Congress acted in 1807 (during the Jefferson administration) to create the Office of Coast Survey.

For most of the 19th century, the cheapest and fastest way to get a bale of cotton from, say, Charleston, SC to Albany, NY was by sail.

New York's South Street Seaport, c. 1850. New York's ports were described as a "forest of ships' masts" from every part of the globe.

The quintessential American Cat Boat, considered to be the "pick-up truck" of the 19th century.

Even as late as the 1930’s, product of all kind was moved by huge square riggers. Following is a fascinating video about, one such boat, the Peking (hailing from Hamburg, Germany), rounding Cape Horn in South America, carrying goods to California:

"Rounding the Horn in Huge Seas"

In terms of American chart cartography, the "golden age" was from 1935-1965. Before 1935, charts were commonly drawn completely in black ink, making it difficult to distinguish land from sea. The photo at left is an example of the typography, color, and hand-drawn lines of the 1935 Chart of Newport Harbor, RI, showing Fort Adams (now a state park). Notice the beauty of the hand-drawn topographical features, the rich colors, and the serif fonts which are now, regrettably, a thing of the past. The addition of color to charts was pure 1930s!

The golden era of chart cartography came to a screeching halt with the addition of Loran lines (the cross-hatched green and purple lines in the photo at right) and day-glow yellow, which appear after 1965. Loran was a pre-GPS navigational tool. Now obsolete, Loran lines have since been removed from charts.

Removing the cluttering Loran lines has not helped charts regain their lost beauty, however. We’ll likely never get back to that 1930’s nautical chart aesthetic, especially since only digital copies of many charts remain today, produced if needed on paper from laser printers. The earlier technique of plate printing has been discontinued. Plate printing (or sometimes called lithographic printing) is the use of metal plates to print on paper, and is the best and least expensive way to get incredibly fine detail and gorgeous consistent colors, especially if one needs large quantities of charts printed. However, the economics of plate printing only work with very large quantities. Since most navigation has moved to the computer screen, in 2014 plate printing of charts was officially halted (http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2013/20131022_nauticalcharts.html. Despite this, there is hope for those who appreciate map aesthetics, as there are a few companies that still print out popular versions of vintage charts the old-fashioned way.

Although we now mostly rely on digital navigational tools for traveling by sea (yes, there's an app for that), when it comes to planning out voyages and understanding the big picture, paper charts are still best. There is no substitute for gathering with friends around a dining room table and unfolding a large paper chart that shows your destination(s) in one expansive view. From that vantage point, you can understand obstacles, alternate routes, and best ways of navigating that you just can’t get huddled around a four-inch screen. There's also the possibility, when traveling with your finger over a map, that an out-of-the-way harbor that you suddenly MUST explore catches your eye.

One of the principal reasons I use charts for my company, Mapisart, is inspiration! I'm inspired to reminisce about voyages gone by, but mostly spurred to dream of the next great maritime adventure. At Mapisart we make lots of fun things with maps and nautical charts that can inspire your next great voyage by land, sea, or even just your imagination!

Atlantic Neptune title page source: US Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/75332506/).

All other images: public domain or courtesy of author.

"Rounding the Horn" video posted to YouTube on March 17, 2016 by OffshoreProductions1.

Trip Wolfskehl is a self-described environmentalist who rides his bike to work every day, especially in winter. He became fascinated with place simply because he lives in the most beautiful place in the world, Newport, Rhode Island, and he sincerely hopes you feel the same way about your place. He’s been making his living with maps since 2004 and is the founder of Mapisart. Contact him through trip@mapisart.com.

#seafaring #navigation #nauticalcharts #UShistory #maps

66 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

© 2019 The Coordinates Society.  


Content Use Policy:  

All material on the site is copyrighted to The Coordinates Society or the specific contributor per U.S. law. You may share content only if you give attribution (and link back to) The Coordinates Society, do not use the material for commercial purposes, or manipulate and re-share the material in any manner. We are happy to consider altering these terms upon request, especially for educational or other not-for-profit organizations and commercial licensing.  Please contact us with any questions.



  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Instagram Icon
  • Pinterest - White Circle
  • LinkedIn - White Circle
  • Twitter - White Circle