The German Maritime Observatory

In 1875, the German Maritime Observatory (die Deutsche Seewarte) was founded in Hamburg as a national institute of the German Imperial Admiralty and continued to exist with different ministerial affiliations until 1945. It was the observatory’s task to support shipping interests by studying the natural conditions of the oceans and furthering knowledge about weather conditions at sea. Initially, the observatory’s staff analyzed logbooks and commissioned navy and merchant marine vessels to take measurements on their voyages. This data provided the basis for developing new shipping routes and made sea travel safer, quicker, and more efficient. Over time, the observatory broadened the focus of its work; eventually, it worked in fields such as nautical science, maritime meteorology, and oceanography.

The period between 1875 and 1945, when the German Maritime Observatory existed, was characterized by the founding of the German Empire, colonial expansion, and geopolitical caesuras provoked by both world wars. Initially, the observatory was oriented towards international collaboration; this involved the exchange of research results,  collaborative research expeditions to extreme environments, and the sharing of information regarding winter ice in the North and Baltic Seas. This gave way to isolation during wartime when knowledge of ocean depths and currents, or drift ice, for example, suddenly became potentially decisive information with regard to the outcome of the war.

For the study of the history of the German Maritime Observatory, both written historical sources are evaluated and objects are used, some of which belong to the collection of the German Maritime Museum. You can also find more information about the project on my staff profile at the German Maritime Museum here.

Image source: This image shows the German Maritime Observatory in Hamburg in the 1890s. The image can be found here and it is in the public domain.