Bowditch, Nathaniel

Nathaniel BowditchNathaniel Bowditch (March 26, 1773-16 March 16, 1838), a self-taught astronomer, navigator, and business executive, was one of America’s first scientists. His enduring reputation is based on two books; the New American Practical Navigator, a manual for sailors that is still in print; and his definitive translation of French mathematician Pierre Laplace’s Méchanique céleste.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Nathaniel was the fourth child of Habakkuk and Mary (Ingersoll) Bowditch. Habakkuk was a cooper and shipmaster. When Nathaniel was two the family moved from the Salem waterfront to rural Salem Village (now Peabody). His early education was at the dame school across the road from home. The family moved back to Salem when he was seven. He attended Master Watson’s school where he had his first taste of mathematics.

At age 10 Nathaniel went to work beside his father at a cooperage. In the evenings he took a bookkeeping short course. His mother died during the two years he worked as a cooper. In 1785, age 12, Nathaniel was apprenticed to Ropes and Hodges, ship chandlers. Living in the house of Jonathan Hodges, he was allowed to use his master’s library. During the day he learned about the equipment and supplies needed to outfit sailing ships and heard stories of exotic ports and people. In the evenings he studied in the library.

Salem’s sea-going merchants generated wealth which supported scientific development and instrument-making. In these fields Bowditch was encouraged by three local Harvard-trained scholars: Nathan Read, an apothecary, nail factory entrepreneur, and early steam engine and paddlewheel boat inventor; John Prince, the liberal pastor of the First Congregational Church of Salem and the inventor of an air pump; and William Bentley, Unitarian pastor of the Second Congregational Church, whose diaries and journalism recorded his encyclopaedic learning. Bentley encouraged Bowditch to study Latin and, from his 4,000 book library, he lent him books, including Isaac Newton’s Principia. In 1791 the Philosophical Library Society, at the urging of Bentley and Prince, granted 18-year old Bowditch borrowing privileges. With these resources he continued his readings in mathematics and natural philosophy, mastered Euclid, and learned French by translating the New Testament with the help of a dictionary. He constructed his own astronomical and surveying instruments.

In 1794 Bowditch assisted Reverend Bentley and shipmaster John Gibaut in the land survey of Salem. Gibaut was so impressed with the young man’s thoroughness and accuracy that he invited Bowditch to sign on as his clerk on his next voyage to the East Indies. In preparation, Bowditch took up the study of sea journals and navigation techniques. Between 1795 and 1803, Bowditch sailed to the East Indies five times. He used his free time on board studying sailing charts and navigation, taking lunar measurements, and filling notebooks with observations. The first time he signed on as a clerk and second mate; by the last voyage he was master and part-owner of the ship. After selling his goods from the last voyage, he had enough capital to retire from the sea.

Practical sailing experience combined with astronomy scholarship made Bowditch one of the best navigators in America. Newburyport publisher, Edmund March Blunt, commissioned him to update and revise his The American Coast Pilot, 1796. Bowditch used a 15-month stretch of shore time, 1797-98, to check the data and recalculate the tables. Building on his work on The American Coast Pilot, in 1802 Bowditch compiled The New American Practical Navigator. As secretary and inspector of voyage journals for the East India Marine Society of Salem, he had access to additional information on voyages, routes, and foreign ports. The New American Practical Navigator contained instruction in navigation, surveying directions, data on winds, directions on how to calculate high tides, notes on currents, a dictionary of sea terms, an explanation of rigging, model contracts, a model ship’s journal or log, statistics on marine insurance, information on bills of exchange, and lists of responsibilities for ship owners, masters, factors, and agents. This comprehensiveness soon won it wide usage and the title of “the seaman’s bible.” It went through ten editions before Bowditch died.

In 1798 Bowditch married Elizabeth Boardman. His father died of a paralytic stroke a few months later. He was in Spain, on his fourth voyage, when he received the news that his wife of only a few months had also died. In 1800, Nathaniel Bowditch married his cousin, Mary Ingersoll. They lived in the Boardman mansion with his first wife’s mother. Between 1805 and 1823 the Bowditches had eight children, six boys and two girls.

At the age of 30, Bowditch was invited to become President of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Salem. In 1817 he set up the Orne Memorial trust fund for ministers of Salem’s First Church, the first instance of what has come to be known in financial circles as a “Massachusetts Trust.” Translating his experience as a marine supercargo to the world of general finance, he set up separate accounts so that losses or gains in one account did not affect the others.

In 1804 Bowditch had a falling out with his minister William Bentley over politics—Bentley was a Republican and Bowditch was then campaigning as a Federalist. He sold his pew at Second Church and joined John Prince’s First Church.

Harvard College awarded Bowditch an honorary LL.D. in 1802. Although in 1806 he declined the Hollis Professorship of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, in 1810 he accepted election as a Harvard overseer. As a Fellow of the Harvard Corporation, 1826-38, he audited college finances, finding over $120,000 in errors. He recommended resignations, pay cuts, faculty dismissals, and other cost-cutting measures. Harvard President John Kirkland resisted some of these measures. After Bowditch excoriated Kirkland in an 1828 meeting, Kirkland resigned and was replaced by Josiah Quincy.

In 1799 Bowditch had been elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was its president, 1829-38. In 1818 he was elected to the Edinburgh and London Royal Societies. He later joined the Irish Royal Academy, the Royal Astronomical Society of London, the Royal Academies of Palermo and Berlin, and the British Association. He declined Thomas Jefferson‘s 1818 offer of the mathematics chair at the new University of Virginia.

Beginning in 1812 Bowditch worked on an English translation of Pierre Laplace’s Traité de mécanique céleste, 1799-1825, and wrote scientific articles on spherical trigonometry, magnetic compass variations, the earth’s oblateness, celestial table corrections, and the behavior of twin pendulums. These articles appeared in the Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In addition, he wrote a number of extended book reviews for the North American Review. He published his four-volume translation of Laplace, 1829-39, using one-third of his life savings. Complimentary copies were sent to libraries and scientists around the world. The books contained three pages of annotations for every two in the original. His protégé and editorial assistant on the project, Benjamin Peirce, went on to become a Harvard professor and America’s leading mathematician. The translation trained the next generation of American astronomers.

In 1823, at the age of 50, Bowditch moved to Boston to become the actuary of the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company. He joined the Church on the Green led by the Unitarian minister, Alexander Young, and attended the Sunday evening salons at the home of his friend, Harvard professor George Ticknor. There he mixed with many of Boston’s intellectuals, including William Prescott and Daniel Webster.

Mary Bowditch died of tuberculosis in 1834. Nathaniel slowed down, taking more time to read poetry, history and biography. He died of stomach cancer and was buried beside his wife under Trinity Church in Boston. Later they were reburied in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Bowditch attended church all his life. He was reticent about his religious beliefs, particularly those that might not be universally shared. Young said, “In his religious views, Dr. Bowditch was, from examination and conviction, a firm and decided Unitarian. But he had no taste for the polemics or peculiarities of any sect, and did not love to dwell on the distinctive and dividing points of Christian doctrine. His religion was rather an inward sentiment, flowing out into the life, and revealing itself in his character and actions.” Young however complained, “I must always deeply regret that Dr. Bowditch did not throw the weight of a public profession of religion into the scale of Christianity.”

When asked about his religious beliefs he answered, “Of what importance are my opinions to anyone? I do not wish to be made a show of. As to creeds of faith, I have always been of the sentiment of the poet [Alexander Pope, Essay on Man],—’For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight; His can’t be wrong, whose life is in the right.'”

There are Bowditch papers in Harvard University archives, Cambridge, Massachusetts; in the Boston Public Library; and at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. There are Bowditch letters in Nathan Reingold, ed., Science in Nineteenth Century America: A Documentary History (1964). Thomas R. and Mary C. McHale edited Early American-Philippine Trade: The Journal of Nathaniel Bowditch in Manila, 1796 (1962). The current edition of the American Practical Navigator is available at Wikisource. Bowditch’s son, Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch, wrote Memoir of Nathaniel Bowditch (1840), which is also found prefixed to the fourth volume of the Mécanique céleste. Other biographies are Ralph Elton Berry, Yankee Stargazer: The Life of Nathaniel Bowditch (1941) and Augustus Peabody Loring, Jr., Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) of Salem and Boston, Navigator, etc. (1950). Eulogies include Alexander Young, A Discourse on the Life and Character of the Hon. Nathaniel Bowditch (1838); John Pickering, Eulogy on Nathaniel Bowditch, LL.D., President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1838); and David Appleton White, An Eulogy on the Life and Character of Nathaniel Bowditch (1838). For the scientific context see Dirk J. Struik, The Origins of American Science (New England) (1948, rev. ed. 1957) and John C. Greene, American Science in the Age of Jefferson (1984). For Bowditch as a businessman see Ronald Story, The Forging of an Aristocracy: Harvard and the Boston Upper Class, 1800-1870 (1980). For background on Bentley, Prince, and other early Unitarians, see Samuel A. Eliot, Heralds of a Liberal Faith, vol. 1: The Prophets (1910) and Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism in Transylvania, England, and America (1945). See also Frances Diane Robotti, Chronicles of Old Salem (1948). Marc Rothenberg wrote an entry on Bowditch in American National Biography (1999). Salem’s Bowditch page is at

Article by Jim Nugent
Posted February 5, 2005