Nathaniel Bowditch

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Bowditch, Nathaniel

(b. Salem, Massachusetts, 26 March 1773; d. Boston, Massachusetts, 16 March 1838)


Bowditch, a poor boy, is a fine example of the autodidact. Apprenticed to a ship’s chandler at an early age, he acquired skill in languages and considerable knowledge of mathematics and other sciences through reading and study. Bowditch’s scientific career was largely one of self-education; the United States of his day afforded very little opportunity for original research in astronomy and mathematical physics. As a young boy he went through the not inconsiderable book resources of Salem, including the library of Richard Kirwan, which had been seized by a local privateer. In 1790 he learned Latin in order to read the Principia; at the age of forty-five he started to study German in order to read the scientific literature appearing in that language. Between 1795 and 1803 Bowditch participated in five long sea voyages, the last as master of a ship bound for Sumatra; he continued his studies on these long trips. When he retired from the sea in 1804, he entered the business world; at his death, he was an insurance actuary in Boston. Offers from American universities never strongly tempted Bowditch, for they had little to offer a man of his caliber.

Beyond his obviously considerable native ability, Bowditch brought two characteristics to his scientific work. In addition to his erudition in mathematics, astronomy, and physics, he was apparently one of those who delight in mathematical computations. Not surprisingly, his early work often consisted of corrections of errors in the writings of others, apparently uncovered while working through the literature. Of this nature is the New American Practical Navigator, which originated in corrections and extensions of the work of John Hamilton Moore. By the third edition (1802) the work had changed sufficiently to bear Bowditch’s name, as it does in successive editions to this day. By 1815 he had contributed pieces on astronomy, mathematics, and physics to both American and European publications. His article in Nicholson’s Journal (1811) on the 1807 meteor explosion over Weston, Connecticut, was the most spectacular, while his report in the Memoirs (1815) of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the motion of a pendulum suspended from two points was probably the most significant. Even before the publication of his translation of Laplace’s Mécanique céleste, his writings had earned Bowditch membership in the Royal Society and other honors.

By 1818 Bowditch had completed his translation of the first four volumes of the Mécanique céleste. His purpose was threefold: to supply steps omitted from the original text; to incorporate later results into the translation; and to give credits omitted by Laplace. There is no evidence that Laplace ever responded to any communication from Bowditch, a fact sometimes ascribed to the third purpose. The four volumes appeared in 1829, 1832, 1834, and 1839, the last posthumously. The delay in publication was undoubtedly due in part to financial problems. Bowditch, who would not have people subsidize, out of regard for him or other irrelevant reasons, a book they could not read, printed the work at his own expense. It is also most likely that he continued to work over the volumes between 1818 and their appearance, particularly to bring the subject matter up to date. The fifth volume of the Mécanique céleste appeared too late for translation by Bowditch. Probably the only person who aided Bowditch was Benjamin Peirce, who read over part of the text for errors. Printed in a small edition, the work was perhaps more widely admired than read, simply serving to confirm the translator’s already high reputation. Nevertheless, outside of France, Particularly in English-speaking countries, Bowditch’s edition, rather than the original, was often the means of learning about the mechanics of the heavens.


I. Original Works. By far the best source of information on Bowditch are his papers and his library, in the Boston Public Library. These collections have not yet received the attention they deserve; much of our present knowledge of Bowditch derives from older works, often written with little recourse to original sources of this nature. A few letters from the Bowditch Collection are in N. Reingold, Science in Nineteenth Century America, a Documentary History (New York, 1964), pp. 11–28. The manuscript of his journal during his fourth voyage was edited by T. R. McHale and M. C. McHale as Early American-Philippine Trade: The Journal of Nathaniel Bowditch in Manila, 1796, Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, Monograph Series, No. 2 (New Haven, 1962). Aside from a few remarks on Chinese numerical notations, the journal does not relate to Bowditch’s intellectual interests.

No complete bibliography of Bowditch’s writings exists. The best single source of bibliographical information, as well as other data on Bowditch, was published by the Peabody Museum: A Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Manuscripts, Books, Portraits and Personal Relics of Nathaniel Bowditch (1773–1838) With a Sketch of the Life of Nathaniel Bowditch by Dr. Harold Bowditch and an Essay on the Scientific Achievements of Nathaniel Bowditch With a Bibliography of his Publications by Professor Raymond Clare Archbald (Salem, Mass., 1937). This publication is the best individual introduction to Bowditch, his writings, and the collections in the Boston Public Library. The bibliography, while quite adequate on Bowditch’s larger works and the publications in the Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, does not attempt to specify many of Bowditch’s mathematical and astronomical contributions, which often appeared in the form of letters or brief extracts from letters. Solutions to mathematical problems are in Robert Adrain’s The Analyst, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1808–1814); and R. Adrain and J. Ryan, Mathematical Diary, 2 vols. (New York, 1825–1828)—thirty-two solutions are in the latter, for example. Other examples of his work appear in Zach’s Monatliche Correspondenz and the Correspondence astronomique, as well as the Zeitschrift für Astronomie. The North American Review, 20 (April 1825), has an important Bowditch review of several recent works in astronomy.

II. Secondary Literature. The best biography of Bowditch remains the one prepared by his son, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, and published in Volume IV of the translation of the Mécanique céleste, and separately in subsequent editions. Despite its understandable filiopietism and a tendency to ramble, the work does convey much information and shows signs of honest attempts to gather information by consulting the Bowditch papers and old friends. Bowditch’s descendants are a very distinguished Massachusetts family; and in writings by or about them there is information of indeterminate validity about Nathaniel Bowditch. Of the obituaries published at Bowditch’s death, the most useful is John Pickering, Eulogy on Nathaniel Bowditch, LL.D…. (Boston, 1838). Robert E. Berry, Yankee Stargazer (New York, 1941), is a good popular biography but not much of an advance over Henry Ingersoll Bowditch. For indications of Bowditch’s reputation in the last century, see I. Todhunter. A History of Mathematical Theories of Attraction and the Figure of the Earth (London, 1873), pp. 309–366. Harold L. Burstyn, At the Sign of the Quadrant, Publication No. 32 of the Marine Historical Association (Mystic, Conn., 1957), pp, 11–30, is a good introduction to the hydrographic part of Bowditch’s career. Reingold, op. cit., has a brief discussion of Bowditch.

Nathan Reingold

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Nathaniel Bowditch

Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) was an American navigator and mathematician. An exceptional critic of European theoretical mathematics, he was the first American to publish a usable navigation guide, his edition of "The Practical Navigator" (1799).

Nathaniel Bowditch was born March 26, 1773, in Salem, Mass., the son of a shipmaster and cooper. Strained family finances forced him to leave school at 10 to help his father. At 12 he became a clerk in a ship chandlery and began a process of self-education, studying mathematics and foreign languages. In 1795 Bowditch went to sea; he had made five voyages by 1803, rising from clerk to master. He married Elizabeth Boardman in March 1798; she died the same year. In October 1800 he married Mary Ingersoll. They had six sons and two daughters.

During this time he had continued his scientific study, becoming fascinated by the problems of navigation. In 1799 he published a revised American edition of J. H. Moore's The Practical Navigator, in which he eventually corrected over 11, 000 errors. The third edition, published in 1802, was so changed from the original that Bowditch published it as The New Practical Navigator under his own name. This handbook became and remains, in revised form, the standard navigational aid, and it was the first to be readily usable by the ordinary seaman.

When he retired from the sea in 1803, his mathematical abilities led to his appointment as president of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company. This work, plus the management of estates and trusts, gave him both sufficient income and leisure for his scientific pursuits, and he declined offers of teaching posts at Harvard, West Point, and the University of Virginia. He continued his self-education and worked on a critical and annotated translation of Pierre Simon de Laplace's Mécanique céleste, considered the culmination of the Newtonian system, which was not formally published until 1829-1839. Bowditch refused to gather subscriptions to pay for publication, determined to pay the entire cost, $12, 000, by himself. He was aided in this endeavor by a large salary advance, achieved by becoming actuary of the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company in 1823. Bowditch corrected Laplace's errors, supplied mathematical proofs which Laplace had omitted, and showed where the French mathematician was guilty of using the work of other scientists without acknowledgment. Bowditch's annotated edition is nearly twice the size of the original and constitutes a major critical work; it was well received by most European scientists and earned Bowditch international fame.

Bowditch was not an original thinker but primarily a meticulous and exhaustive critic endowed with exceptional mathematical skills. He found his most receptive audience in Europe; few in America could follow his mathematical work. He died on March 17, 1838.

Further Reading

Two popular accounts of Bowditch's life are Alfred Boller Stanford, Navigator: The Story of Nathaniel Bowditch (1927), and Robert Elton Berry, Yankee Stargazer: The Life of Nathaniel Bowditch (1941). Nathan Reingold, ed., Science in Nineteenth Century America (1964), is useful for general background. □

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Nathaniel Bowditch


American mathematician and astronomer best known for his 1802 work, The New American Practical Navigator, a theoretical and practical guide to navigation at sea that is still in use today. Bowditch is also remembered for his translation of Pierre Laplace's Celestial Mechanics. The four volumes of this translation, appearing between 1829 and 1839, included extensive commentary making the very difficult text more accessible to English-speaking scientists.