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Nathaniel Bowditch

Born: 26-Mar-1773
Birthplace: Salem, MA
Died: 17-Mar-1838
Location of death: Boston, MA
Cause of death: Cancer - Stomach
Remains: Buried, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

Gender: Male
Religion: Unitarian
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Astronomer, Mathematician, Business

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: American Practical Navigator

Self-educated astronomer Nathaniel Bowditch is remembered as arguably the most influential person in the development of American navigation. As a boy he was apprenticed to a merchant selling ships' supplies, and spent his spare time reading all he could find, from calculus to philosophy. At 13, he wrote a brief but knowledgeable booklet on marine navigation. At 15 he constructed his own barometer. He built other instruments for surveying and astronomical studies, and taught himself French using a French-language dictionary and the New Testament, then taught himself Latin to read Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. In his young adulthood he clerked on a ship making several voyages to the East Indies, and kept meticulous notes on lunar positions and navigational techniques, winds, tides, currents, bills of exchange, and the responsibilities of ship owners, masters, agents, and crews.

In his mid-twenties Bowditch was commissioned to revise and update a then-respected book of navigation, The American Coast Pilot, and he spent a year and a half reworking and correcting the calculations of the book's tables, before the publisher decided that Bowditch was not revising an existing reference, he was writing a new one. Called "the seaman's bible", Bowditch's American Practical Navigator debuted in 1802 and has been revised more than fifty times, but remains a standard volume found on virtually all American seafaring vessels. According to legend, returning from a voyage to Sumatra he sailed through a blinding snowstorm, unable to see either stars or shore, yet found the docks of Salem -- then never went to sea again.

Bowditch provided what is still the most respected English-language translation of French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace's Traité du Mécanique Céleste, and hobnobbed socially with William H. Prescott and Daniel Webster. He was offered professorships at Harvard, West Point, and the University of Virginia, but declined these offers, instead working as an actuarial and insurance executive, while continuing his studies and writings. With his second wife, his cousin Mary, Bowditch had eight children, spanking them with his slide rule when they needed punishment.

Father: Habakkuk Bowditch (cooper, b. 1737, d. 1798)
Mother: Mary Ingersoll Bowditch (b. circa 1738)
Sister: Mary Bowditch Martin (b. 1766)
Brother: Habakkuk Bowditch Jr. (b. 1768)
Sister: Elizabeth Bowditch (b. 1771)
Brother: William Bowditch (b. 1776)
Brother: Samuel Ingersoll Bowditch (b. 1778)
Sister: Lois Bowditch (b. 1781)
Sister: Sarah Bowditch (b. 1782)
Sister: Margaret Bowditch (b. 1783)
Wife: Elizabeth Boardman Bowditch (b. circa 1780, m. 1798, d. 1798)
Wife: Mary Polly Ingersoll Bowditch (his cousin, b. 1781, m. 1800, d. 1834, six sons, two daughters)
Son: Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch Jr. (b. 1805, d. 1861)
Son: Henry Ingersoll Bowditch (Professor of medicine at Harvard, b. 1808, d. 1892)
Son: Charles Ingersoll Bowditch (b. 1809, d. 1820)

    American Academy of Arts and Sciences President (1826-38)
    Royal Society
    Royal Society of Edinburgh

Author of books:
American Practical Navigator: An Epitome of Navigation and Nautical Astronomy (1802)


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