With its over 100 years of scientific tradition in the field of waterways engineering, the German Federal Waterways Engineering and Research Institute (Bundesanstalt für Wasserbau, BAW) deals with a multitude of challenging tasks. The predecessor institution of the BAW was the Royal Research Institute for Hydraulic Engineering and Shipbuilding ("Königliche Versuchsanstalt für Wasserbau und Schiffbau") which was founded in Berlin in 1903.
The end of the Second World War and the special situation in Berlin also saw the end of the "Preußische Versuchsanstalt für Wasser-, Erd- und Schiffbau" (research institute for waterways, earthworks and foundation engineering). Karlsruhe was chosen as a suitable location for the re-built and re-organised waterways engineering administration in the western zones of occupation. Karlsruhe was selected because of its geographical proximity to and scientific relationship with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, as it was known at the time. The first director of the BAW, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Heinrich Wittmann, was also the director of the University's Theodor Rehbock Institute.
The BAW was founded in 1948 as the technical successor of the institute "Preußische Versuchsanstalt für Wasser-, Erd- und Schiffbau" in Berlin which - in turn - was founded in 1903. On 3 October 1990 the German Democratic Republic's Research Institute for Navigation, Hydraulic and Foundation Engineering (Forschungsanstalt für Schifffahrt, Wasser- und Grundbau, FAS) was incorporated into the Federal Waterways Engineering and Research Institute (BAW).
The BAW was assigned a technical and scientific mission which covered all areas of waterways engineering relating to Germany's federal waterways. By the end of the 1960s, the BAW's mission had been expanded to include electronic data processing. The authority became the data processing centre for the German Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration (Wasser- und Schifffahrtsverwaltung, WSV) in 1969.
The BAW was also assigned responsibility for the building of special purpose ships for the WSV. In addition, the BAW manages the construction planning of special purpose ships for other non-military federal authorities. The responsibilities of the BAW in the area of information and communications technology were transferred to the Bundesanstalt für IT-Dienstleistungen (Federal Institute of IT Services) on 1 January 2012. Today the BAW operates from its headquarters in Karlsruhe and offices in Hamburg.