Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838)
Mathematician, astronomer, and author of the “New American Practical Navigator”
Born in Salem, Massachusetts on March 26, 1773, Nathaniel Bowditch had little formal education. He left school at age ten to work in his father’s cooperage. He was then indentured as a bookkeeping apprentice to a ship chandler. Through prodigious self-study, he learned algebra, calculus, Latin, and French. At the age of 22, he made his first sea voyage, as a ship’s clerk. By his fifth voyage, he was master and part-owner. Returning to Salem in 1803, he entered the insurance business and became America’s first insurance actuary as president of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company. He was offered chairs in mathematics at Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the US Military Academy at West Point, but turned them all down. During his time at sea, he utilized the British book “The Practical Navigator” for coastal and celestial navigation. After identifying numerous errors, particularly in the mathematical tables in the book, he contacted Edmund Blunt, the book’s American publisher. Blunt asked him to revise the book for a new American edition. Bowditch made so many changes, additions, and reorganizations that it was published in 1802 as the “New American Practical Navigator”. The full title of the first edition was: ‘The New American Practical Navigator; being an Epitome of Navigation; containing all the tables necessary to be used with the Nautical Almanac, in determining the latitude; and the longitude by lunar observations; keeping a complete reckoning at sea’. The book promptly became the navigators’ bible, but the name was quickly changed informally to “Bowditch”. The author died in Boston on March 16, 1838. Blunt regularly published new editions of the book every few years until 1866, when the US Navy’s Hydrographic Office purchased the copyright. The publication is now electronically available free of charge via the Internet.