Nathaniel Bowditch

Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) was an American navigator and mathematician. An exceptional critic of European theoretical mathematics, he was the first American to publish a usable navigation guide, his edition of "The Practical Navigator" (1799).

Nathaniel Bowditch was born March 26, 1773, in Salem, Mass., the son of a shipmaster and cooper. Strained family finances forced him to leave school at 10 to help his father. At 12 he became a clerk in a ship chandlery and began a process of self-education, studying mathematics and foreign languages. In 1795 Bowditch went to sea; he had made five voyages by 1803, rising from clerk to master. He married Elizabeth Boardman in March 1798; she died the same year. In October 1800 he married Mary Ingersoll. They had six sons and two daughters.

During this time he had continued his scientific study, becoming fascinated by the problems of navigation. In 1799 he published a revised American edition of J. H. Moore's The Practical Navigator, in which he eventually corrected over 11, 000 errors. The third edition, published in 1802, was so changed from the original that Bowditch published it as The New Practical Navigator under his own name. This handbook became and remains, in revised form, the standard navigational aid, and it was the first to be readily usable by the ordinary seaman.

When he retired from the sea in 1803, his mathematical abilities led to his appointment as president of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company. This work, plus the management of estates and trusts, gave him both sufficient income and leisure for his scientific pursuits, and he declined offers of teaching posts at Harvard, West Point, and the University of Virginia. He continued his self-education and worked on a critical and annotated translation of Pierre Simon de Laplace's Mécanique céleste, considered the culmination of the Newtonian system, which was not formally published until 1829-1839. Bowditch refused to gather subscriptions to pay for publication, determined to pay the entire cost, $12, 000, by himself. He was aided in this endeavor by a large salary advance, achieved by becoming actuary of the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company in 1823. Bowditch corrected Laplace's errors, supplied mathematical proofs which Laplace had omitted, and showed where the French mathematician was guilty of using the work of other scientists without acknowledgment. Bowditch's annotated edition is nearly twice the size of the original and constitutes a major critical work; it was well received by most European scientists and earned Bowditch international fame.

Bowditch was not an original thinker but primarily a meticulous and exhaustive critic endowed with exceptional mathematical skills. He found his most receptive audience in Europe; few in America could follow his mathematical work. He died on March 17, 1838.

Further Reading on Nathaniel Bowditch

Two popular accounts of Bowditch's life are Alfred Boller Stanford, Navigator: The Story of Nathaniel Bowditch (1927), and Robert Elton Berry, Yankee Stargazer: The Life of Nathaniel Bowditch (1941). Nathan Reingold, ed., Science in Nineteenth Century America (1964), is useful for general background.

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