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Nathaniel Bowditch The Practical Navigator
Salem’s irascible little “arithmetic sailor” made seamanship a science and left all mariners in his debt
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
In the face of this need, mariners still held to the old ways of doing things. They took the ships out on seamanship alone. Book learning and mathematics were simply not to be trusted. Many an “arithmetic sailor” in hopes of a quick passage had put his faith in paper and pencil instead of his own good sea-sense and had come to grief. Little wonder that people derided Bowditch and his talk of the infallibility of numbers.
Nathaniel Bowditch began life respectably enough. He was born in Salem in 1773, into a family whose men followed the two professions of so many New Englanders—farming and seafaring. By the time little Nat arrived, the luck of the family seemed to have run out. His mother, Mary Bowditch, was dying, and the child knew more of cold and hunger than anything else.
During the long periods that his father, Habakkuk Bowclitch, spent at sea, the boy did what he could to nurse his mother, and to keep her and his small brothers and sisters from freezing to death in the Massachusetts winters. Between voyages, when the unlucky and ineffectual father was home, things were better. Unfortunately these periods always ended too soon, owing to Habakkuk’s habit of seeking the solace of rum to help him forget the “awfule Sights he Hadde seen at sea.” When the binges were over, Habakkuk took ship again, leaving his nearly penniless family behind to shift as best it could.
Mary Bowditch died one bitter, snowy night when Nat was ten. He was apprenticed to a ship chandlerindentured until he reached twenty-one years of age—and his brothers and sisters were distributed among various relations and neighbors. Though the Bowditch men were noted for brawn, this lonely little boy simply did not grow. He remained weak, short, and spindly—and he stayed that way throughout his life. But his mental capacity made up for what he lacked in physical prowess. His temperament seems to have been choleric, but his mind was clear and, in argument, deadly as a trap. He was phenomenally impatient with his brawnier but less gifted contemporaries if he found them guilty of illogic or overstatement.
Bowditch’s first love and passion was mathematics, and his skill became apparent at a very early age. When he was fourteen somebody gave him an algebra text, and he stayed up night after night with it, completely enthralled by the beauty of its unassailable logic. Books of all kinds were available, even in the Salem of those days, and for the most part they were of very high caliber. For example, the entire library of the great Irish philosopher and scientist, Richard Kirwan, had been captured off the coast of England and brought home to nearby Beverly by a privateer. There were books in French, Latin, and Spanish, and Bowditch devoured them all, mastering each language that stood between him and the information he coveted. By 1796, when Bowditch was twenty-three, he possessed one of the most thoroughly educated minds in America.
But what was he to do in Salem, and what was Salem to do with him? One small commission came his way. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts hired him to survey his home town. This he did with great dispatch and accuracy; we read that those who were associated with him in the project admitted he was “powerful in calculation.”
Once this surveying job was finished, however, Salem seemed to hold little promise for the budding young mathematician and astronomer. Bowditch continued to work in the chandlery. At one end of the long counter he set up a kind of workshop with models of spheres, the heavens, triangles, and other tools of his “useless” profession. When he was not keeping books or arguing with the ship captains who came to buy everything from marling needles to anchor chain, he figured and calculated endlessly.
In the Salem of those days glory, romance, money, and security all came from the sea. Youngsters who could, manned the ships. Those with the knack of command and a quick Yankee eye for profits rose to be captains, often in their teens, and made fortunes for themselves and their owners. The weaklings, like Bowditch, stayed home and did the chores. They kept the books, made out the endless manifests, calculated the profits and losses.
To compound the hopelessness of his position and to make his misery even more acute, Bowditch had fallen in love—with a Salem girl named Elizabeth Boardman, the daughter of a shipmaster who had been lost at sea. She not only returned his love but seems also to have understood him completely. She believed in him and stood up for him and his “nonsense” in the face of the entire seafaring community. Unfortunately, then as now, marriage required money, and Nat could scarcely support himself. The sea—the only source of income that he knew of—was denied him.
At this bleak moment there appeared an old boyhood friend, Captain Henry Prince. Slightly older than Bowditch, he had gone to sea at an early age and had been a shipmaster lor many years. Prince seems to have been a very good friend, and what was more important, was inclined to believe in the possibility of accurate navigation by the stars. He had sense enough to know that il what Bowditch said was true, then passages could be accomplished in half or onethird the usual times with a corresponding increase in profits. Known as one of Salem’s shrewdest, most daring and capable captains, Prince was already moderately wealthy, had his eye on a fine white house in Salem, and looked forward to retirement.