The Immaculate Bowditch
When one considers that Nathanial Bowditch died 176 years ago, what he accomplished in his 65 years on this earth is even more impressive. His formal education ended at age 10, when his family’s financial distress required him to work in his father’s cooperage, curtailing opportunity for intellectual advancement. But Bowditch was an unusual teenager, one who spent his evenings studying Greek and Latin. When he was 13, Bowditch wrote a booklet on marine navigation. At age 15, he designed and built a barometer. He taught himself calculus in order to study Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica . Jobs in ships chandleries as a young teen led to voyages as a ship’s clerk. At sea, he learned French, kept meticulous notes on lunar positions, navigational techniques, wind, tide, currents, and applied his mathematical genius to celestial navigation.
Bowditch’s initial research was provided by Hamilton Moore, whose book, Navigator, had been published in London. Working on voyages, by the time he tackled the third edition of the work, Bowditch had corrected – by hand – more than 8,000 errors in Moore’s computation tables. That led to the publication of Bowditch’s own work in1802, The American Practical Navigator . He said he would “put down in the book nothing I can’t teach the crew.” On one of Bowditch’s voyages, it was reported that all 12 crew, the cook included, learned to take and calculate lunar observations and plot the ship’s position. Still considered the seaman’s bible, naval officer candidates used to refer to the book as “the immaculate Bowditch.”
He gave up his sailing career in 1804 after a voyage ending in a blinding snow storm in which he navigated safely to his home port of Salem, Massachusetts, without being able to see either stars or land. He joined the corporate world as president of Salem’s Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company.
Bowditch’s continuing publications in astronomical investigations – including what remains the best translation of French Mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace’s monumental work on heavenly bodies, Traité du Méchanique Céleste – brought him offers of academic chairs at Harvard, West Point, and University of Virginia. Preferring to work unattached, he turned them all down.
– Roger Vaughan