Riding the wave


The French Hydrographic Service, namely the Dépôt des cartes ...

Although charts were required by governments for military and administrative purposes, up to the establishment of the State mapping-agencies chart-making was a private business, whose products - made at the expenses of their authors - remained their property.

Plan de Gibraltar , pl. 35 (detail)

It was the case of the Neptune François, which remained the property of Pène's heirs, till it was bought by the Navy and represented the initial nucleus of the Dépôt des cartes et plans, journeaux et Mémoires concernant la Navigation, established in Paris in 1720, under the direction of Captain de Luynes to which, the following year, succeeded General Jacques Nicolas Bellin, the founder of French hydrography.

General Bellin updated and improved the Neptune François,, and eventually re-issued it in several editions, with the title of Hydrographie Française des cartes receuil dressées au Dépôt des plans de la Marine, pour le service des vaisseaux du Roy, a copy of which is kept at the Correr Museum in Venice. It consists of two volumes of 52 charts produced between 1749 and 1772, covering the world as known at the time, and complete with nautical instructions plus historical and geographical information as well.

The Dépôt des cartes was directed by a general officer assisted by an engineer - who in 1741 received the title of "hydrographer" - while the subordinate staff was composed of a number of junior engineers.

They were tasked with the compilation of charts on the basis of the surveys conducted by naval personnel at sea, while a number of astronomers provided triangulations, so that the first charts produced by the Dépôt des cartes were published in 1737.

Plan de l'Ile de Pianosa ... Publié par ordre de l'Empereur ... en 1854, 1:20.000.
By Ch. Dyonnet, J.M. Hacq and V. Carré
( Italian Navy Hydrographic Institute)

In 1755 the Carte réduite des parties connues du globe terrestre was published, describing the lands known before the great scientific expeditions in the Pacific. The coast of the Nouvelle-Hollande is represented with an almost straight dotted line, while a note informs mariners that "On n'a aucune connoissance de cette partie."

In 1784 the first volume of the Hydrographie Françoise included an new edition of this chart, "augmentée des nouvelles découvertes."

Cartographic activities were complemented by the construction of nautical instruments and therefore - in the late Seventies - The Dépôt des cartes was able to fully satisfy the demand for nautical documents and equipment for use of the Navy.

For a short period after the Revolution, the Dépôt was incorporated in the corresponding Dépôt de la Guerre under the Army, but in the early nineties regained its status and, under the technical direction of engineer-hydrographer Charles-François Beautemps-Beaupré established the prerequisites of scientific hydrography.

The latter in 1823 published the Pilote français,, whose cover displays a rare engraving representing hydrographers at work off the coast of Brest. The engineers, once mere compilers, had now become accomplished surveyors and, by mid-century, completed the survey of the Channel and of the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, as far as the Adriatic.

Paola Presciuttini, 2002