The Life of Nathaniel Bowditch

Sophia Dababo, Journalist

Have you ever wondered who our school was named after? Nathaniel Bowditch was born in Salem, Province of Massachusetts Bay, on March 26, 1773, to Habakkuk Bowditch, a cooper who was a former sailor, but quit after his job in 1775, to marry Mary Ingersoll Bowditch. He was forced to quit school at the age of 10 to work at his father’s cooperage, before being enslaved for nine years as a bookkeeping apprentice to a ship chandler at the age of twelve. This is where he learned bookkeeping for the first time, which was a crucial milestone in his life.

Bowditch began studying algebra at the age of fourteen in 1786, and two years later he taught himself calculus. In 1790, he taught himself Latin, then in 1792, he taught himself French, so he could study mathematical works like Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. He discovered hundreds of inaccuracies in John Hamilton Moore’s The New Practical Navigator, and at the age of eighteen, he transcribed all of the mathematical works published in the Royal Society of London’s Philosophical Transactions. A translation of Pierre-Simon de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste, a long treatise on mathematics and theoretical astronomy, would be one of his many notable scientific achievements. The growth of astronomy in the United States was aided by this translation.

Bowditch embarked on his first of four journeys to sea as a ship’s clerk and captain’s scribe in 1795. His sixth expedition was as a ship’s master and part-owner. He returned to Salem in 1803 after this expedition to pursue his mathematics studies and establish the insurance company. The Nathaniel Bowditch House, one of his family’s Salem residences, is still standing and was renovated in 2000. The National Historic Landmark designation has been given to this home. 

Bowditch got fascinated by the mathematics involved in celestial navigation during his time at sea. He began by working with the London-published Navigator by John Hamilton Moore, which was known to include mistakes. Bowditch recomputed all of Moore’s tables and restructured and enlarged the work to have accurate tables to work from. On his sixth journey, he contacted Edmund Blunt, the work’s US publisher, who urged him to fix and rewrite the third edition. Bowditch opted to create his own book since the assignment was so large, and he wanted to “set down in the book nothing I can’t educate the crew.” Every individual on the 12-man crew, including the ship’s cook, is believed to have learned how to take and compute moon measurements during that voyage.

Bowditch married Elizabeth Boardman in 1798, but she died just seven months later. Bowditch married Mary “Polly” Ingersoll Bowditch, his second wife and cousin, in 1800. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch was one of two girls and six sons born to them. Henry Pickering Bowditch and Charles Pickering Bowditch were two of his grandkids. He published The American Practical Navigator in 1802 and that same year got awarded an honorary degree by Harvard University. 

Blunt released the first edition of Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator in 1802 and it established the standard for the western hemisphere shipping sector for the following century and a half. New solutions to the spherical triangle issue were added in the book, as well as detailed equations and tables for navigation. The copyright was obtained by the United States Hydrographic Office in 1866, and the book has been in continuous publication since then, with frequent modifications to keep it current. Bowditch had such an impact on the American Practical Navigator that seamen now refer to it simply as Bowditch. Prior to the formation of the Naval Academy, student naval officers referred to the work as “the immaculate Bowditch.”

Bowditch died from stomach cancer in Boston in 1838. He was laid to rest in Mount Auburn Cemetery, where a life sized statue is standing and honoring him today at his grave.