Nathaniel Bowditch

Salem, Massachusetts

March 26, 1773

 – March 16, 1838

Nathaniel Bowditch

Salem, Massachusetts

March 26, 1773

 – March 16, 1838

The Immaculate Bowditch

Nathaniel Bowditch grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, the fourth of seven children.  His family struggled financially, and young Nathaniel followed his father as an apprentice in the copper trade, which he did not do well.  He went to work for a ship chandlery firm at the age of twelve.  He was a prolific mathematical protégée and became an expert in the field.  He had to learn to read books written in Spanish, French Latin Greek and German to learn about math and other topics.  At the age of 18 three Harvard graduates recognized his genius and helped young Nathaniel to gain access to books on mathematics and astronomy.  He became intrigued by navigation.

At the age of 21, he went to sea on a commercial vessel.  Bowditch realized the navigational methods of the day were inadequate and worked on ways to use observations of the moon for navigation.  He discovered errors in the navigational manuals of the day and was asked to provide a chapter for a navigation manual published by Edmund Blunt from nearby Newburyport, Mass.  Bowditch’s chapter was titled, “The Method of Finding the Longitude of the Sea.”

In 1802, Nathaniel Bowditch’s own manual, “The New American Practical Navigator” was first published.  He shipped out five times over a nine-year period often spending a full year at sea.  Bowditch was named president of a fire and marine insurance company in Salem and several years later was recruited to head a Boston insurance company.

Harvard College honored Bowditch with both a Masters and Doctoral degree for his distinguished and groundbreaking work. In 1868 the United States Navy Hydrographic Office acquired the copyright of “The American Practical Navigator.”   The work has been updated many times and is still an essential book for navigators worldwide.  Over 75 editions of the book have been printed and one million copies have been sold.

~ Gary Jobson

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