Nathaniel Bowditch

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Memorial statue for Nathaniel Bowditch, in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Nathaniel Bowditch (March 26, 1773 - March 16 1838) was an early American mathematician, who wrote on practical navigation.


Bowditch, the fourth of seven children, was born in Salem, Massachusetts. His father was Habakkuk Bowditch and his mother was Mary Ingersoll. When he was ten years old, Nathaniel had to leave school to work in his father's cooperage. He later became an apprentice to a ship's chandler, a retail dealer in nautical provisions and supplies.

When he was fourteen years old, he began to study algebra. At sixteen, he taught himself calculus. He taught himself both Latin and French in order to read mathematical works. At the age of 17, he wrote a letter to a Harvard University professor pointing out an error in Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica.

In 1795 Bowditch went to sea on the first of four voyages as supercargo and captain's writer. His fifth voyage was as master and part owner of a ship, after which in 1803 he returned to Salem to retire to his mathematical studies and the insurance business.

The American Practical Navigator

During his time at sea Bowditch became intensely interested in the mathematics involved in celestial navigation. He worked initially with John Hamilton Moore's London-published "Navigator", which was known to have errors. To have exact tables to work from, Bowditch recomputed all of Moore's tables, and rearranged and expanded the work. He contacted the US publisher of the work, Edmund Blunt, who asked him to correct and revise the third edition on his fifth voyage. The task was so extensive Bowditch decided to write his own book, and to "put down in the book nothing I can't teach the crew." On that trip it is said that every man of the crew of 12, including the ship's cook, became able to take and calculate lunar observations and to plot the position of the ship.

In 1802 Mr. Blunt published the first edition of the American Practical Navigator, which became the western hempisphere shipping industry standard for the next century and a half. The text included several solutions to the spherical triangle problem which were new, as well as extensive formulae and tables for navigation. In 1866 the United States Hydrographic Office purchased the copyright and since that time the book has been in continuous publication, with regular revisions to keep it current.


Nathaniel Bowditch died in Boston, Massachusetts. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, where he also has a monument erected through public collection.

The following eulogy was written by the Salem Marine Society:

"In his death a public, a national, a human benefactor has departed. Not this community nor our country only, but the whole world has reason to do honor to his memor. When the voice of eulogy shall cease to flow, no monument will be needed to keep alive his memory among me; but as long as ships shall sail, the needle point to the north, and the stars go through their wonted courses in the heavens, the name of Dr. Bowditch will be revered as of one who has helped his fellowmen in time of need, who was and is a guide to them over the pathless oceans, and one who forwarded the great interests of mankind."de:Nathaniel Bowditch

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