Thursday, January 7, 2010


Nathaniel Bowditch, 1773 - 1838, was a mathematical prodigy born in Salem, Massachusetts, son of a shipmaster. As a teenage apprentice to a chandler, his brilliance and scholarship were so pronounced as to attract the attention of Harvard's scholars. He is said to have studied twelve languages, the better to read original texts, and at age sixteen he translated Newton's Principia from the Latin. By age twenty he may have been the outstanding mathematician of the country.

Given his prowess, residence in a great seaport, and background, he turned to navigation. Although by this time Mr. Harrison's chronometer had solved the longitude problem, those clocks were generally too expensive for most ships and cumbersome and very complex methods of determining longitude (by "lunar distance") remained in wide use.  In fact, Christopher Columbus's method of latitude sailing (sailing first to the latitude of the destination and remaining on that latitude to arrival, using noon sights) remained common technique.

Bowditch determined to change all that, developing a simplified method of finding longitude. The forward to my 1966 edition of his American Practical Navigator, a book known across the globe as simply "Bowditch", states: "His simplified methods, easily grasped by the intelligent seaman willing to learn, paved the way for yankee supremacy of the seas during the clipper ship era."

The book was a commercial success, has emerged in more than seventy-five editions to date, a million copies printed, and it remains in print. The latest edition has an interactive CD. (I have a 1936 and a 1966 edition. An 1807 second edition is listed on ABE Books for $4,500.00. I want it.)

Bowditch went on to have a long, prosperous and happy life, with many, many honors. On his 1838 death the Salem Marine Society wrote:

"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 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."

There is, if possible, an even larger context in which to view Bowditch. By teaching the cook and the boatswain to navigate, he removed the great mystery from celestial navigation, and as always when important knowledge is democratized, there was a profound and beneficial social effect.

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