The American Practical Navigator/Bowditch

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Last painting by Gilbert Stuart (1828). Considered by the family of Bowditch to be the best of various paintings made, although it was unfinished when the artist died.

NATHANIEL BOWDITCH (1773-1838) Nathaniel Bowditch was born on March 26, 1773, in Salem, Mass., fourth of the seven children of shipmaster Habakkuk Bowditch and his wife, Mary.

Since the migration of William Bowditch from England to the Colonies in the 17th century, the family had resided at Salem. Most of its sons, like those of other families in this New England seaport, had gone to sea, and many of them became shipmasters. Nathaniel Bowditch himself sailed as master on his last voyage, and two of his brothers met untimely deaths while pursuing careers at sea.

Nathaniel Bowditch’s father is said to have lost two ships at sea, and by late Revolutionary days he returned to the trade of cooper, which he had learned in his youth. This provided insufficient income to properly supply the needs of his growing family, who were often hungry and cold. For many years the nearly destitute family received an annual grant of 15 to 20 dollars from the Salem Marine Society. By the time Nathaniel had reached the age of 10, the family’s poverty forced him to leave school and join his father in the cooper’s trade to help support the family.

Nathaniel was unsuccessful as a cooper, and when he was about 12 years of age, he entered the first of two ship-chandlery firms by which he was employed. It was during the nearly 10 years he was so employed that his great mind first attracted public attention. From the time he began school Bowditch had an all-consuming interest in learning, particularly mathematics. By his middle teens he was recognized in Salem as an authority on that subject. Salem being primarily a shipping town, most of the inhabitants sooner or later found their way to the ship chandler, and news of the brilliant young clerk spread until eventually it came to the attention of the learned men of his day. Impressed by his desire to educate himself, they supplied him with books that he might learn of the discoveries of other men. Since many of the best books were written by Europeans, Bowditch first taught himself their languages. French, Spanish, Latin, Greek and German were among the two dozen or more languages and dialects he studied during his life. At the age of 16 he began the study of Newton’s Principia, translating parts of it from the Latin. He even found an error in that classic text, and though lacking the confidence to announce it at the time, he later published his findings and had them accepted by the scientific community.

During the Revolutionary War a privateer out of Beverly, a neighboring town to Salem, had taken as one of its prizes an English vessel which was carrying the philosophical library of a famed Irish scholar, Dr. Richard Kirwan. The books were brought to the Colonies and there bought by a group of educated Salem men who used them to found the Philosophical Library Company, reputed to have been the best library north of Philadelphia at the time. In 1791, when Bowditch was 18, two Harvard-educated ministers, Rev. John Prince and Rev. William Bentley, persuaded the Company to allow Bowditch the use of its library. Encouraged by these two men and a third, Nathan Read, an apothecary and also a Harvard man, Bowditch studied the works of the great men who had preceded him, especially the mathematicians and the astronomers. By the time he became of age, this knowledge, acquired when not working long hours at the chandlery, had made young Nathaniel the outstanding mathematician in the Commonwealth, and perhaps in the country.

In the seafaring town of Salem, Bowditch was drawn to navigation early, learning the subject at the age of 13 from an old British sailor. A year later he began studying surveying, and in 1794 he assisted in a survey of the town. At 15 he devised an almanac reputed to have been of great accuracy. His other youthful accomplishments included the construction of a crude barometer and a sundial.

When Bowditch went to sea at the age of 21, it was as captain’s writer and nominal second mate, the officer’s berth being offered him because of his reputation as a scholar. Under Captain Henry Prince, the ship Henry sailed from Salem in the winter of 1795 on what was to be a year-long voyage to the Ile de Bourbon (now called Reunion) in the Indian Ocean.

Bowditch began his seagoing career when accurate time was not available to the average naval or merchant ship. A reliable marine chronometer had been invented some 60 years before, but the prohibitive cost, plus the long voyages without opportunity to check the error of the timepiece, made the large investment an impractical one. A system of determining longitude by “lunar distance,” a method which did not require an accurate timepiece, was known, but this product of the minds of mathematicians and astronomers was so involved as to be beyond the capabilities of the uneducated seamen of that day. Consequently, ships were navigated by a combination of dead reckoning and parallel sailing (a system of sailing north or south to the latitude of the destination and then east or west to the destination). The navigational routine of the time was “lead, log, and lookout.”

To Bowditch, the mathematical genius, computation of lunar distances was no mystery, of course, but he recognized the need for an easier method of working them in order to navigate ships more safely and efficiently. Through analysis and observation, he derived a new and simplified formula during his first trip.

John Hamilton Moore’s The Practical Navigator was the leading navigational text when Bowditch first went to sea, and had been for many years. Early in his first voyage, however, the captain’s writer-second mate began turning up errors in Moore’s book, and before long he found it necessary to recompute some of the tables he most often used in working his sights. Bowditch recorded the errors he found, and by the end of his second voyage, made in the higher capacity of supercargo, the news of his findings in The New Practical Navigator had reached Edmund Blunt, a printer at Newburyport, Mass. At Blunt’s request, Bowditch agreed to participate with other learned men in the preparation of an American edition of the thirteenth (1798) edition of Moore’s work. The first American edition was published at Newburyport by Blunt in 1799. This edition corrected many of the errors that Moore had included.

Although most of the errors were of little significance to practical navigation because they were errors in the fifth and sixth places of logarithm tables, some errors were significant.The most significant mistake was listing the year 1800 as a leap year in the table of the sun’s declination. The consequence was that Moore gave the declination for March 1, 1800, as 7°11'. Since the actual value was 7° 33', the calculation of a meridian altitude would be in error by 22 minutes of latitude, or 22 nautical miles.

Bowditch’s principal contribution to the first American edition was his chapter “The Method of Finding the Longitude at Sea,” which discussed his new method for computing lunar distances. Following publication of the first American edition, Blunt obtained Bowditch’s services in checking the American and English editions for further errors. Blunt then published a second American edition of Moore’s thirteenth edition in 1800. When preparing a third American edition for the press, Blunt decided that Bowditch had revised Moore’s work to such an extent that Bowditch should be named as author. The title was changed to The New American Practical Navigator and the book was published in 1802 as a first edition. Bowditch vowed while writing this edition to “put down in the book nothing I can’t teach the crew,” and it is said that every member of his crew including the cook could take a lunar observation and plot the ship’s position.

Bowditch made a total of five trips to sea, over a period of about nine years, his last as master and part owner of the three-masted Putnam. Homeward bound from a 13-month voyage to Sumatra and the Ile de France (now called Mauritius) the Putnam approached Salem harbor on December 25, 1803, during a thick fog without having had a celestial observation since noon on the 24th. Relying upon his dead reckoning, Bowditch conned his wooden-hulled ship to the entrance of the rocky harbor, where he had the good fortune to get a momentary glimpse of Eastern Point, Cape Ann, enough to confirm his position. The Putnam proceeded in, past such hazards as “Bowditch’s Ledge” (named after a great-grandfather who had wrecked his ship on the rock more than a century before) and anchored safely at 1900 that evening. Word of the daring feat, performed when other masters were hove-to outside the harbor, spread along the coast and added greatly to Bowditch’s reputation. He was, indeed, the “practical navigator.”

His standing as a mathematician and successful shipmaster earned him a well-paid position ashore within a matter of weeks after his last voyage. He was installed as president of a Salem fire and marine insurance company at the age of 30, and during the 20 years he held that position the company prospered. In 1823 he left Salem to take a similar position with a Boston insurance firm, serving that company with equal success until his death.

From the time he finished the “Navigator” until 1814, Bowditch’s mathematical and scientific pursuits consisted of studies and papers on the orbits of comets, applications of Napier’s rules, magnetic variation, eclipses, calculations on tides, and the charting of Salem harbor. In that year, however, he turned to what he considered the greatest work of his life, the translation into English of Mecanique Celeste, by Pierre Laplace. Mecanique Celeste was a summary of all the then known facts about the workings of the heavens. Bowditch translated four of the five volumes before his death, and published them at his own expense. He gave many formula derivations which Laplace had not shown, and also included further discoveries following the time of publication. His work made this information available to American astronomers and enabled them to pursue their studies on the basis of that which was already known. Continuing his style of writing for the learner, Bowditch presented his English version of Mecanique Celeste in such a manner that the student of mathematics could easily trace the steps involved in reaching the most complicated conclusions.

Shortly after the publication of The New American Practical Navigator, Harvard College honored its author with the presentation of the honorary degree of Master of Arts, and in 1816 the college made him an honorary Doctor of Laws. From the time the Harvard graduates of Salem first assisted him in his studies, Bowditch had a great interest in that college, and in 1810 he was elected one of its Overseers, a position he held until 1826, when he was elected to the Corporation. During 1826-27 he was the leader of a small group of men who saved the school from financial disaster by forcing necessary economies on the college’s reluctant president. At one time Bowditch was offered a Professorship in Mathematics at Harvard but this, as well as similar offers from West Point and the University of Virginia, he declined. In all his life he was never known to have made a public speech or to have addressed any large group of people.

Many other honors came to Bowditch in recognition of his astronomical, mathematical, and marine accomplishments. He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the East India Marine Society, the Royal Academy of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of London, the Royal Irish Academy, the American Philosophical Society, the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Boston Marine Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Palermo Academy of Science, and the Royal Academy of Berlin.

Nathaniel Bowditch outlived all of his brothers and sisters by nearly 30 years. He died on March 16, 1838, in his sixty-fifth year. The following eulogy by the Salem Marine Society indicates the regard in which this distinguished American was held by his contemporaries:

“In his death a public, a national, a human benefactor has departed. Not this community, nor our country only, but the whole world, has reason to do honor to his memory. When the voice of Eulogy shall be still, when the tear of Sorrow shall cease to flow, no monument will be needed to keep alive his memory among men; but as long as ships shall sail, the needle point to the north, and the stars go through their wonted courses in the heavens, the name of Dr. Bowditch will be revered as of one who helped his fellow-men in a time of need, who was and is a guide to them over the pathless ocean, and of one who forwarded the great interests of mankind.”

Original title page of The New American Practical Navigator, First Edition, published in 1802.