Mar 262019

Today is the birthday (1773) of Nathaniel Bowditch, author of The New American Practical Navigator, first published in 1802 and still carried on board every commissioned U.S. Naval vessel. Bowditch was born in Salem, Province of Massachusetts Bay, to Habakkuk Bowditch, a cooper, and Mary (Ingersoll) Bowditch. At the age of 10 he left school to work in his father’s cooperage before becoming indentured at 12 for nine years as a bookkeeping apprentice to a ship chandler. In 1786, (age 14), Bowditch began to study algebra and two years later he taught himself calculus. He also taught himself Latin in 1790 and French in 1792 so he was able to read mathematical works such as Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. He found thousands of errors in John Hamilton Moore’s The New Practical Navigator, and at 18, he copied all the mathematical papers of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Among his many significant scientific contributions later was a translation of Pierre-Simon de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste, a lengthy work on mathematics and theoretical astronomy. This translation was critical to the development of astronomy in the United States.

In 1795, Bowditch went to sea on the first of four voyages as a ship’s clerk and captain’s writer. His fifth voyage was as master and part owner of a ship. 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 that 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 competent to take and calculate lunar observations and to plot the correct position of the ship.

In 1802 Blunt published the first edition of Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator, which became the western hemisphere shipping industry standard for the next century and a half. The text included several solutions to the spherical triangle problem that 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. Bowditch’s influence on the American Practical Navigator was so profound that to this day mariners refer to it simply as Bowditch. Student Naval officers prior to the establishment of the Naval Academy referred to the work as “the immaculate Bowditch”.

Following this voyage, he returned to Salem in 1803 to resume his mathematical studies and enter the insurance business. In 1804, Bowditch became North America’s first insurance actuary as president of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Salem. Under his direction, the company prospered despite difficult political conditions and the War of 1812. Bowditch’s mathematical and astronomical work during this time earned him a significant standing, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1799 and the American Philosophical Society in 1809. He was offered the chair of mathematics and physics at Harvard in 1806, but turned it down. In 1804, an article on his observations of the Moon was published and in 1806 he published naval charts of several harbors, including Salem. More scientific publications followed, including a study of a meteor explosion (1807), three papers on the orbits of comets (1815, 1818, 1820) and a study of the Lissajous figures created by the motion of a pendulum suspended from two points (1815).

As well as Harvard, the United States Military Academy and the University of Virginia offered Bowditch chairs in mathematics. Bowditch again refused these offers, perhaps (in the case of the University of Virginia) because the $2,000 salary offered was two-thirds of the salary he received as president of the insurance company. Bowditch’s translation of the first four volumes of Laplace’s Traité de mécanique céleste was completed by 1818. Publication of the work, however, was delayed for many years, most likely due to cost. Nonetheless, he continued to work on it with the assistance of Benjamin Peirce, adding commentaries that doubled its length. By 1819, Bowditch’s international reputation had grown to the extent that he was elected as a member of the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and London and the Royal Irish Academy.

In 1823, Bowditch left the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company to become an actuary for the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company in Boston. There he served as a “money manager” (an investment manager) for wealthy individuals who made their fortunes at sea, directing their wealth toward manufacturing. Towns such as Lowell prospered as a result. Bowditch’s move from Salem to Boston involved the transfer of over 2,500 books, 100 maps and charts and 29 volumes of his own manuscripts.

Bowditch died in Boston in 1838 from stomach cancer. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, where a monument to him was erected through public collections.

Salem was, of course, a Puritan stronghold in colonial times (think witch trials) and John Josselyn wrote about the region in the 17th century in Two Voyages to New England. Here is a recipe from the book for pumpkin (called “pompion”) boiled to a mush, much like apple sauce, and served as a side dish. Spices are cook’s choice. I used to use allspice and cloves as well as ginger.

The Ancient New England standing dish.

But the Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh Pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is stew’d enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with some Spice, as Ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an Apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with Fish or Flesh: It provokes Urine extreamly and is very windy.”

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