1773 – 1838
Astronomer, Navigator, and Mathematicianby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
“ . . . He also made the stars and God placed them in the expanse
of the heavens to give light on the earth.”
"The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard."
Hills of dark seawater rose and fell under the soft caress of a salty breeze. Silver moonlight swept down from the sky and cast an eerie glow on the ocean’s surface. Through this haunting scene, a single ship drifts. Its sails glow pearly-white in the darkness and the rigging creaks slightly as the vessel gently rocks back and forth. But Nat did not gaze at the ocean’s beauty and he did not stare in appreciation of the moonlight’s effect on satin sails. No, Nat’s upturned face only saw the huge expanse of inky shadow, sprinkled with twinkling lights: the stars. In his hand, he fingered his quill. Sheets of blank paper lay before him and shifted easily in the breeze. A canopy of stars lay spread above his head, ready and willing for an observant eye. And, with a hopeful heart and upturned gaze, Nat’s quill sped across the page. Jotting down the observations and theories that would change the history of navigation forever.
Nathaniel Bowditch entered this world on March 26, 1773 in Salem, Massachusetts. Although he was born in Salem, Nat’s family moved to Danvers, which is also in Massachusetts, shortly after his birth. But, seven years later, the Bowditch family returned to Salem for the last time. Moving so frequently had not complemented the family business either. Nat’s father, Habakkuk Bowditch, was a cooper. He would repair and create casks of wood. His business soon collapsed, however, and the Bowditch family found themselves in a financial crisis. At the time, Nat was ten years old and attending school. His formal education was abruptly cut short, when Habakkuk needed his son to help out in the cooperage shop. The rest of his knowledge would be gained through self-education. The family business kept Nat occupied for another two years until he was apprenticed to another business called “Hodges and Ropes” in Salem during the year 1785. He became the apprentice clerk and was only twelve-years-old. But Nat didn’t let work stop his education. Luckily, several men were more than willing to share their experiences and knowledge with the young lad and Nat always listened attentively. He also used observations to refine the knowledge gained from his other sources. . .
“He watched the rope makers walking backwards as they twisted the fibers
into yarn, the yarn into strands, and the strands into rope. The rope makers
were proud of their work. ‘Most important thing on a ship’, they
said. “You can’t sail a ship without cordage!’
That night Nat started a notebook on everything about rope . . .
He watched the sail makers cutting heavy canvas . . .
He watched the caulker’s mallets, caulking the seams of the ships . . .”
In 1790, Mr. Bowditch started working for a shop owned by Samuel C. Ward. Though he still kept a clerk’s role, his luck improved in the switch of employment. There ‘Kirwan’s Library’ was accessible and this is where Nat really buckled down to study. Always hungry for education, Nat learned calculus and Latin which enable him to read all of Newton’s famous works. Amazingly, Nat would also learn other languages simply to be able to study mathematics in those languages!
1795-1799 were busy years for Nat. He attended four voyages and (in 1802) actually commanded a merchant ship. During these long hours on the ocean, Nat continued to read and study books on navigation which had been published previously. It seems Mr. Bowditch could not get enough knowledge to satisfy his bottomless desire! However, before these periods of study and command, Nat had married a woman named Elizabeth Boardman, but she died seven months after their marriage in March of 1798. He would marry for a second time, a couple years later, to Mary Ingersoll and they would have eight children together.
By 1804, Nat had had enough of the sailor world and decided to move into the realm of business. In this same year Nat was elevated to president of a the ‘Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company’ in Salem; making him the first insurance actuary in America. Under his guidance and knowledge, the company prospered even when it faced harsh conditions due to the war of 1812. During this time, Nat was recognized for his astronomical and mathematical investigations which earned him an esteemed reputation. Understand that Nathaniel loved to figure out mathematical problems which were related, in some way, to navigation. This passion was satisfied when he began a project which would correct and extend the work of John Hamilton Moore. The hobby soon grew however, when Nat realized that the work he had readily published had become so different from Moore’s work that Nat could now call it his own! In this way, Nat published the guide which he is now famous for: the New American Practical Navigator (1802). Unlike most inventors and scholars which appeared back then, Nat was given immediate recognition for his ingenious work. After the infamous guide was published, Nat also undertook his own translation of the Mcanique cleste by P.S. Laplace. This was a collection of four volumes which was not immediately published (probably due to publication costs). Over the coming years he was offered several teaching positions (in physics and mathematics) by hopeful colleges, all of which he refused. Eventually, though, he became the president of an institute in Boston and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. On March 16, 1838, Nat died in Boston at the age of 63.
Let’s go over the New American Practical Navigator for a moment. It is important to understand just how amazing this guide was. Nat’s work gave every sailor the ability to navigate. During a time of ships and stars, this guide was a huge deal. It opened the door for a new age of navigating possibilities. And, more importantly, it gave every person the chance to learn and further his own knowledge.
The records and details of Nat’s life were written by his son Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch (1805-1861). And, in 1865, this biography was elaborated into a separate biography by Henry Ingersoll Bowditch (1808-1892).
We do not know much about Nat’s spiritual life. We do not know if Nat even believed in God or not. However, we can still see a biblical perspective in the life he lived. The first thing to note is Nat’s desire to learn. His passion never faltered even when circumstances (such as apprenticeship) seemed to get in the way. An excellent example for theists to follow, pertaining to a hunger for God’s word. Also note the way Nat created his own work. First he found the errors and gaps in the work of navigators and scientists, but he did not let their work intimidate him. In fact, he did the opposite and challenged their observations with his own, checking to see if their observations were correct (or wrong). This is another good example on conduct and character. So, no, we cannot draw a clear Biblical perspective from Nat’s life, but we can learn values from the way he lived and the accomplishments he made.
“His fame is of the most durable kind, resting on the union of
the highest genius with the most practical talents, and the application of both
to the good of his fellow man.”
~The Boston Athenaeum - 1838
1. J.J. O’Connor & E.F. Robertson, “Nathaniel Bowditch” July 2000, < http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Bowditch.html> (15 April 2004).
2. LoveToKnow™, The 1991 Edition Encyclopedia, 2002, <http://www.1911encyclopedia.org> (15 April 2004).
3. © Historic Salem Inc., The Bowditch Initiative, 17 April 2004, <http://www.nathanielbowditch.org/index.html> (15 April 2004).
4. Jean Lee Latham, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (New York: Scholastic Inc., 1955).