The expression launch originated from the Italian barcaccia [english: big boat] and originally described the largest jolly boat on a warship.
At the time of sailing ships, the launch was normally kept together with the pin aces, the second biggest jolly boat, on the bar ring between foresail and mainmast. The launch was used among other things to fetch drinking water or make landings. The frigate's or corvette's launch was approx. 39.36 feet long, had 14 to 16 straps and two yards, peeking javelin or gaff sails.
The so-called admiral or commanding officer launches (Captains boats) were introduced in the imperial navy. They were used as launches to connect the big ships anchoring on the roadstead, which couldn't move directly in the port due to its depth. As the name Captains boat implies, the use of it was left up to the commanding officers or admirals.
Since the end of the 19th century in German-speaking areas military traffic ships and working boats have been called launches when in port. Launches are part of the port scenery particularly in the Hamburg port. They are used predominantly as a means of transport for people, for towing lighters and are also used for boat-trips round the harbour. The traditional launch has a covered part for the helmsman at the front and benches behind it on each side for passengers.