Nathaniel Bowditch was born March 26, 1773 in Salem, Massachusetts.
At the age of ten, Bowditch left school to work for his father, and then at the age of twelve he became indentured as a bookkeeper apprentice to a ship chandler.
By the age of fourteen, Bowditch began to study algebra and around the age of sixteen he began to teach himself calculus.
He also taught himself Latin and French in order to read mathematical works such as Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
Bowditch went on to find thousands of errors in John Hamilton Moore’s work The New Practical Navigator. He copied all the mathematical papers he could find in the Transactions of the Royal Society of London.
Among Bowditch’s many significant scientific contributions would be his 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.
Then a pirate privateer from Salem raided the ship carrying Irish chemist Richard Kirwan’s personal library between Ireland and England. The library reached Salem in June of 1791 and Bowditch was given access to this extraordinary resource.
In 1795, Bowditch went to sea on his first of four voyages as ship’s clerk and captain’s writer.
His fifth voyage was as master and part owner of a ship.
Following this voyage, Bowditch returned to Salem in 1803 to resume his mathematical studies and enter the insurance business.
In 1798, Bowditch married Elizabeth Boardman, who died seven months later.
His mathematical and astronomical work during this time earned him a significant standing, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1799.
In 1800, Bowditch married his second wife and cousin, Mary (Polly) Ingersoll Bowditch. They had 2 daughters and 6 sons.
In 1802, his first book, The American edition of Practical Navigator was first published. This 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.
That same year, Harvard University awarded Bowditch an honorary Master of Arts degree.
In 1804, Bowditch became America’s first insurance actuary as president of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Salem.
Also in 1804, an article on his observations of the Moon was published and in 1806 he published naval charts of several harbors, including Salem.
He was offered the chair of mathematics and physics at Harvard in 1806, but turned it down.
Bowditch joined the American Philosophical Society in 1809.
More scientific publications followed, including a study of a meteor explosion, three papers on the orbits of comets, and a study of the Lissajous figures created by the motion of a pendulum suspended from two points in 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 March 16, 1838 in Boston from stomach cancer. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, where a monument to him was erected through public collections.
The statue was the first life size bronze to be cast in America and was the creation of renowned sculptor Robert Ball Hughes.
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 memory. When the voice of eulogy shall cease to flow, no monument will be needed to keep alive his memory among men; 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.
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.”
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