Nathaniel Bowditch, Who our School is named After


Ian Wang, Journalist

Nathaniel Bowditch (March 26, 1773 – March 16, 1838) was an American mathematician and is known for his work in navigation. He was remembered for his work in modern ocean navigation and his contribution to the modern world in the age of exploration. He is often seen as the father of maritime navigation. The work he wrote helped many people explore the new world using ships. His book The New American Practical Navigator, which was published in 1802, is carried on every US Navy vessel. In his honor, a middle school and an elementary school are named after him.

Nathaniel Bowditch was the fourth of seven children born in Salem to Habakkuk Bowditch and Mary Ingersoll Bowditch. His father Habakkuk, a cooper, was once a sailor until his ship ran aground in 1775. When he was only ten years old, he was sent to work at his father’s cooperage before at twelve years old, becoming a bookkeeper apprentice in a ship’s chandler. It was here where he learned bookkeeping. In 1786, at age 14, he taught himself algebra and learned calculus two years later. Between 1790 and 1792, he taught himself French and Latin. This was so he could read many famous mathematical works such as Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Issac Newton. Later on, he found many errors, all the way to the thousands, in The New Practical Navigator by John Hamilton Moore. When he was eighteen years old, he copied all the mathematical papers of the Royal Society in London.

In 1795, he went out to sea for the first time as the shipping p clerk and the writer for the ship captain. On his fifth voyage to sea, he became the master of the ship. After this voyage, he returned home to Salem in 1803 to continue his mathematical studies and his insurance business. In 1798, he married Elizabeth Boardman, who died only a few months later. In 1800, he married his second wife, and his cousin, Mary Polly Ingersoll Bowditch (1781-1834), and the two together had 8 children. In the year of 1802, his first book, The American Practical Navigator was published. That same year, Harvard University awarded him with an honorary degree. In 1804, he became the first actuary as president of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Salem. Under his command, the company prospered despite the War of 1812. He continued his work in astrology, mathematics, and physics. 

In 1799, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Science, and later the American Philosophical Society in 1809. In 1806, Bowditch was offered a chair in Harvard Mathematics and Physics, but he declined the offer. In 1804, an article about his observations of the moon was published, including the study of an explosion that happened because of a meteorite that happened in 1807, 3 papers on the orbits of comets, and a study of Lissajous figures caused by the motion of a pendulum suspended in the air between two points. The United States Military Academy and the University of Virginia offered him spots for a salary of $2000. He decided those offered as well, since the pay they were willing to give him were only two thirds of the current pay he received as president of his insurance company.

His translation of the first four volumes of the famed “Traite de Mecanique Celeste”, by Laplac was completed in 1818. The publication, however, was delayed for years because of the expensive  cost required. Nonetheless, he continued his work and ended up adding so many commentators that the paper was doubled in length.

By 1819, his international reputation had grown so much that he was elected as a representative in the Royal Society of London and Edinburgh. In 1823, he resigned his job as president of the Salem Insurance company and became a manager for a Hospital life Insurance company in Boston. His move to Boston included the moving of 2500 books, 100 maps and charts, and 29 volumes of his own manuscripts.

During his experiences out at sea, he became interested in mathematics and celestial navigation. At first, he worked with John Hamilton Moore and his published book, Navigator, in which he found many errors. To have the exact information Moore had, he revised and redid all the calculations Moore had and found tons of errors in his book. He contacted a US publisher of the book, and he revised the book. In 1802, the first edition of Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator was published. In 1838, he died from stomach cancer; he was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. A monument of him was made throughout public collections. The statue of him was the first life-size bronze cast made in the United States. The following was written in the Salem Marine Society:

“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 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 one who has helped his fellow men in time of need, who was and is a guide to them over the pathless oceans, and one who forwarded the great interests of mankind.”

There are several ships named after him, a Oceanographic Survey Ship, the USNS Bowditch and the Nathaniel Bowditch, a high speed ferry serving in downtown Salem and Boston. Furthermore, a lunar crater and a schooner designed by William Hand, which is currently part of the Marine windjammer fleet, is aso named Nathaniel Bowditch. One grammar school, two middle schools and a dorm are named after him. The grammar school is currently in Boston. One of the middle schools is in Salem, MA and the other one is in Foster City, CA (Bowditch Middle School), which happens to be our school. The dorm is in Salem State college. In 2014, Bowditch was introduced to the National Sailing Hall of Fame.