In 1791, two Salem ministers let an 18-year-old apprentice named Nathaniel Bowditch use their private library. Maritime navigation would never be the same.
It just happened to be one of the best scientific libraries in America, and Bowditch happened to have one of the best mathematical minds in the world.
The library had been captured during the American Revolution by a privateer from Beverly, Mass., right next to Salem. The ship’s owners agreed to sell the books to a group of prominent men on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
The serendipitous linking of Nathaniel Bowditch with the Salem Philosophical Society’s library proved fortunate for American science and for sailors around the world. Had it not been for that library, Bowditch might never have founded modern marine navigation, trained a generation of American astronomers, become the first insurance actuary in America or directed investment into New England’s nascent manufacturing industries.
Nathaniel Bowditch was born March 26, 1773, the fourth of seven children in a family that had lived in Salem since 1639. His father, Habakkuk, a fourth-generation shipmaster, had also learned the cooper trade. He suffered business reversals at the beginning of the Revolution and, despondent, went back to making barrels. He had so little money he received $15 or $20 a year in charity from the Salem Marine Society.
Nathaniel showed an early interest in mathematics, once solving a problem so quickly that his teacher accused him of cheating. At the age of 10, his mother Mary Ingersoll died. That ended his formal schooling, and he went to work in his father’s cooper shop to help support the family.
At 12 he was apprenticed to the ship chandlery of Ropes and Hodges as a clerk. In 1790 they retired, and Bowditch went to work for Samuel Curwen Ward, another ship chandler, until he went to sea in 1795.
Salem Philosophical Society
But during all those years, Nathaniel Bowditch spent his leisure reading whatever books he could get his hands on. He especially liked mathematics.
In 1787 his brother William, also good in math, told him about a new way of figuring out problems using letters instead of numbers called algebra. Nathaniel was intrigued. He managed to borrow a book about algebra, which so excited him he couldn’t sleep that night.
Bowditch’s family belonged to the Rev. William Bentley’s East Church of Salem. Bentley and his friend the Rev. Joseph Prince, both scholars, often stopped by Bowditch’s shop to chat with the young bookworm. The two ministers belonged to the Salem Philosophical Society, which had bought a library from a privateer.
On Sept. 5, 1780, the American privateer Pilgrim seized a British frigate on a voyage from Galway to London. The ship carried the library of Richard Kirwan, a prominent Irish chemist.
The Pilgrim returned to Beverly in 1781. The ship’s owners, John and Andrew Cabot, agreed to sell the library’s 116 scientific books at a reasonable rate. To buy them, Harvard President Joseph Willard, of Beverly, raised $435.35 from prominent local men such as Edward Augustus Holyoke and Manassah Cutler. They donated the books to the newly formed Salem Philosophical Society. The library was kept at the home of the Rev. Joseph Prince. It was considered the second-best library in America, next to the one in Philadelphia. Among its treasurers were the Transactions of the Royal Society of London.
Nathaniel Bowditch copied by hand all the papers on mathematics.
Years later, the Salem Philosophical Society offered to give back the books to Kirwan. He refused, saying he was satisfied they had found so useful a destination.
Nathaniel Bowditch learned French from a foreigner living in Salem in exchange for English lessons. That enabled him to become the first American to learn about European breakthroughs in astronomy. He translated and updated four volumes of a treatise by the French scientist Pierre LaPlace.
In Mecanique Celeste, LaPlace summarized his predecessors’ work in mathematics, statistics, physics and astronomy. It wasn’t until 1829 that Bowditch published his translation at his own expense, the astronomical sum of $20,000. It was used as a textbook for the next generation of celestial mathematicians.
Bowditch began to teach himself Latin in 1790 so he could read Newton’s Principia. Bentley, who had tutored at Harvard, had given one of his students a copy of the Principia. The student, Benjamin Pickman, returned it to Bentley so he could give it to Bowditch. Pickman later became a congressman and developer of Derby Square in Salem.
By the time he was 21, Nathaniel Bowditch was probably the best mathematician in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 1795, he went on the first of five voyages first as a clerk, last as a shipmaster and part owner. He found an error in a commonly used navigation manual by John Hamilton Moore, and a publisher asked him to see if he could find others. While Bowditch was at sea he pored over the book and corrected more than 8,000 errors, finally deciding to publish his own. During that voyage he taught the entire crew of 12, including the cook, to calculate lunar positions and position the ship.
In 1802, he published The New American Practical Navigator. It is still carried on board every commissioned U.S. Naval vessel and has never been out of print. It’s called, simply, ‘Bowditch.’ According to tradition, no sailor leaves port without a Bible, a chest of clothes, a mother’s blessing and his copy of Bowditch.
After Bowditch published the Practical Navigator, he settled back in Salem, married twice and had eight children. He also amassed a valuable library of his own. During his career he played a critical role in the advancement of American astronomy.
Thomas Jefferson had sought him out to teach at the University of Virginia, and West Point wanted him too. He declined, preferring business. Bowditch went to work as the country’s first insurance actuary as president of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company. He also helped found the East India Marine Society, now the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem.
Later in life he moved to Boston and managed money for people who had made their fortunes at sea and redirected it to manufacturing.
The day after Nathaniel Bowditch died in Boston on March 16, 1838, his children decided to make his library a public institution. Eventually his descendants donated it to the Boston Public Library.
With thanks to Memoir of Nathaniel Bowditch, by Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch. Photo of Nathaniel Bowditch House by Daderot at en.wikipedia. Own work. Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. This story about Nathaniel Bowditch was updated in 2023.