BOWDITCH, NATHANIEL (1773–1838). Mathematician, navigator,
and astronomer, Nathaniel Bowditch authored the book that since 1802 has
been the standard reference for celestial navigators worldwide. Schooled
only to age ten, Bowditch taught himself mathematics and several foreign
languages in the course of his academic pursuits. While on a voyage to
Manila in 1796, Bowditch used his time to correct and supplement information contained in the standard navigation text of the day, John Hamilton
Moore’s The Practical Navigator (London, 1772; first American ed. 1799). Bowditch published two updated editions of this work (1799, 1800) and
then in 1802 released revised tables and instructions under his own name
as The New American Practical Navigator. This reference immediately became the most frequently consulted text on the subject, selling 30,000 copies in ten editions during his lifetime; it is still in print today.
Bowditch further authored twenty-three scientific papers and an English
translation of Pierre Simon de LaPlace’s Traite de Me ´canique Ce ´leste (five
vols., 1798–1825; Bowditch’s trans., 1829–1839). As the secretary of Salem’s East India Marine Society, he transcribed and disseminated information contained in logs of voyages conducted by society members. The name
Bowditch is still synonymous with scientific navigation instruction, bolstered
by several biographies for juvenile* readers, including Nat the Navigator
(1870) and Carry on, Mr. Bowditch (1955). At his death, one eulogy stated
that “every American ship crosses the ocean more safely for his labors.”