What is the origin of launching ceremonies?

Launch of the Aquitania at John Brown and Co., 1913The Aquitania (1914) after leaving the ways, Bedford Lemere & Co, 21 April 1913. Repro ID: G10712 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

In the past ceremonies included human sacrifice and the garlanding of ships with flowers. The Vikings used to sacrifice a slave to propitiate their sea god but with the introduction of Christianity this barbarous custom was dropped, and a goat was offered in the place of a slave.

In the 15th century the King’s representative would name the ship, drink a goblet of wine, sprinkle wine on the deck at the four cardinal points and then throw the goblet overboard. In Charles II’s time the goblet was presented to the master shipwright and not thrown away. The Museum has in its collection a tankard inscribed At the launching of his Majests Ship the Captain a 3rd rate of 70 Guns 1230 Tuns ye 14 of April 1743. Built by Mr John Holland at Woolwich.

The custom of breaking a bottle of wine apparently began in the days of the early Georges; the first recorded case is of one of the Princesses of Hanover who threw the bottle with more energy than accuracy and missed the ship entirely, injuring one of the spectators at the launch who put in a claim for damages against the Admiralty. From about 1810, a lady was usually asked to perform the ceremony.