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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
From then on his methods were not only put to immediate use but were taught and avidly studied. As the years passed, any man who had sailed with Bowditch proudly considered that he had sat at the feet of the master. Nor was he wrong. For the first time in history, men could venture forth on the ocean and know exactly where they were. To a large extent Bowditch made possible the great age of American shipping. The tall clippers standing out from Canton to New England made their marvelous voyages because they were manned and navigated by men who had studied their New American Practical Navigator .
And what has happened to the book over the years? Published continuously since 1802 and now in about its seventieth edition, it has been one of the great best sellers of all time. Bowditch, and after his death his family, carefully amended and republished it until 1868, when the work was taken over by the Hydrographic Office of the Bureau of Navigation, United States Navy. Known familiarly as H.O. No. 9, it is truly a national monument. Until the period after World War I and the advent of newer methods, coupled with the increasing use of various electronic aids spurred on by World War II—loran, radar, gyrocompasses, inertial guidance systems, to mention a few—“the Bowditch” was the navigator’s bible. The book is still going strong as the basic working and reference text on celestial navigation—in the air and on the sea.
Bowditch never again sailed after the voyage of the Putnam . As the years passed, he emerged from his shell of loneliness. He took an active, and vociferous, part in community affairs—politics, school elections, and the like; he reared a large and very notable family; he helped establish the first maritime insurance company in America.
In 1823 he moved to Boston with his family, where he continued to prosper. His “commentaries” on Pierre Simon Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste ran to over four thousand pages, twice the size of the original, and made this notable work by “the Newton of France” available to the English-speaking world. Bowditch bore the publishing expense himself—it cost him $12,000, a third of his life’s savings. He also brought out many other works—on comets, meteors, and solar eclipses—but his greatest work remains H.O. No. 9, “the Bowditch.”
Honors were heaped upon him. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and Edinburgh, the Royal Academy of Palermo and Berlin, the Royal Irish Society, the Royal Astronomical Society of London, and many others. He was elected secretary of the East India Marine Society of Salem and offered various chairs in mathematics and natural philosophy—at Harvard, at the University of Virginia, and at West Point. He was elected president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1810 he was elected an overseer at Harvard and in 1826 was made a member of its governing corporation. When he died in 1838, ships of all nations in ports throughout the world flew their flags at half-mast as the news spread, and cadets at the United States Naval School wore mourning badges. It was as though mariners everywhere recognized not only the loss of a great scientific and mathematical genius, but of a very good and trustworthy friend, whose work guided them safely across dark and unknown oceans.
But possibly the greatest honor, the one that would have pleased Bowditch most, was the inscription on the commemorative statue erected in Salem by the Marine Society: “… As long as ships shall sail, the needle point to the North, and stars go through their wonted courses in the heavens, the name of Doctor Bowditch will be revered.”