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THE NEW AMERICAN PRACTICAL NAVIGATOR
From a picture. Collection of Peabody Museum, Salem, Mass.
Where many noted Salem ships unloaded their cargoes. The wharf was lined with warehouses
in which were stored valuables collected from all over the world.
In 1802 Dr. Nathaniel Bowditch, who was born in Salem in 1773 and died in Boston in 1838, published his “Practical Navigator,” which from that day to this has been used by every shipmaster of this country and by most of the sailors of other English-speaking nations. It was not his intention to edit it in his name, but as he found over eight thousand mistakes in the book on navigation issued by J. Hamilton Moore, which E. M. Blunt, a publisher of nautical books in Newburyport, asked him to correct, he finally decided to affix his own name to it. One mistake alone in Moore’s work made a difference of twenty-three miles, and is known to have caused the destruction of several ships. It is amusing to notice the prefaces written by the two authors. The earlier work by Moore says that the publisher “sells no sea-books, charts or instruments but such as may be depended on; consequently he excludes all those old inaccurate publications, the depending upon which has often proved fatal to shipping and seamen.” The later publication says that “the author does not absolutely assert that the tables are entirely correct, but feels conscious that no pains have been spared to make them so.” This statement was more modest than it need be, for his book has been pronounced “second to no work of man ever published,” to use the words of Daniel A. White, who wrote a eulogy on the life of the celebrated mathematician. The “Navigator” contains the results of experiences on his voyages, and employs simple formulas for working out nautical problems. Dr. Bowditch sailed always as clerk, supercargo or master with Captain Prince of Salem, and he spent most of his time at sea reading and working out problems. The first ship he sailed on was owned by the well-known merchant, Elias Hasket Derby. On his fourth voyage, when his vessel arrived at Manila the Captain was asked by a Scotchman named Murray how he managed to find his way into the harbour by dead-reckoning. His answer was that he “had a crew of twelve men, every one of whom could take and work a lunar observation as well, for all practical purposes, as Sir Isaac Newton himself, were he alive.” Murray was so surprised at this statement that he decided to go down and inspect the ship and her learned crew. He soon discovered that Captain Prince was right, and he is quoted as saying “there is more knowledge of navigation on board that ship than there ever was in all the vessels that ever floated in Manila Bay.” An amusing anecdote is related in connection with “Cleopatra’s Barge,” owned by George Crowninshield, when she arrived in Genoa in 1817. A visitor came on board, whereupon the Captain pointed to one of his men and remarked that he was a pupil of Nathaniel Bowditch and really navigated the ship. The visitor was surprised to find how much he and the other seamen knew about navigation and was told that even the cook could figure longitude. This individual, who was colored, was thereupon summoned on deck, appearing in a white apron, a chicken in one hand and a butcher’s knife in the other, but he was nevertheless able to answer all the questions put to him. To sail with Dr. Bowditch resulted in sure promotion, and on this fourth voyage the whole crew of twelve men subsequently attained ‘the rank of first or second officer. The “Navigator” made him known throughout this country and many others, and rarely has one treatise ever gained so much popularity for its author. The London Athenæum said, “It goes, both in American and British craft, over every sea of the globe, and is probably the best work of the sort ever published.” It is all the more remarkable when one realizes that Dr. Bowditch accomplished so much while handicapped by extreme poverty. His ancestors who came to Salem in 1639 had been nearly all of them shipmasters. His father Habakkuk, who was a cooper, was so poor at one time that he had to be helped by the Salem Marine Society. His son Nathaniel, however, would not allow poverty to interfere with his desire for learning; in fact, he believed the hardships he endured were actually of assistance to him by making him work all the more conscientiously. He used to enjoy the story of the mathematician who had just inherited much money, whereupon a friend of his remarked: “Ah! I am sorry. You are too rich. You must give up mathematics.” The author of the “Navigator,” who at the age of only twenty-five was the best mathematician in New England, for many years wore summer clothes every winter and often had to sit down to a dinner consisting only of a few potatoes.
When he went to school at Danvers he was so young that the teacher would not let him study mathematics until he had received the consent of his father. On one occasion he solved such a difficult problem that his instructor accused him of receiving help from one of the older students, and it was only the explanation of young Bowditch’s elder brother that saved the brilliant student from punishment. Habakkuk Bowditch was obliged to withdraw his son from school, when only ten years old, and he took him into his cooper-shop. From here he entered the ship-chandler’s store of Ropes & Hodges and then went to a Mr. Ward’s shop where he remained until his first voyage in 1795. While in this last position a visitor, upon entering the store and seeing the lad studying, remarked that he would become an “almanac maker” if he kept on improving, this being to him the highest point one could reach in mathematics. During his youth he overheard his brother William mention that problems were often worked out by letters instead of by figures, and this first suggestion of algebra so excited his curiosity that he did not sleep a minute during the whole of the next night. Some years later, curiously enough, the scientific library of Dr. Richard Kirwan was captured in the English Channel by a Beverly privateer and was presented to an association in Salem which later became the Salem Athenæum. Some time afterwards an offer of remuneration was made to Dr. Kirwan, but he declined the suggestion, saying that he was pleased “his library had found so useful a destination.” Dr. Bowditch never forgot how much he was indebted to this valuable collection of books.
He received the degrees of Master of Arts and Doctor of Laws from Harvard University, and was chosen president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the East India Marine Society. He was elected a member of the Edinburgh Royal Society and other societies in London, of the Royal Academy of Palermo, and of the Royal Academy of Berlin, and in this country he was elected to the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia and the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York. He became president of the Essex Fire and Marine Society of Salem, and in 1823 moved to Boston, which he called “the home of his adoption,” in order to take the position of actuary of the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company. Just before he left the city of his birth a farewell dinner was given to him, and it is doubtful if any man ever left Salem more regretted. Dr. Bowditch, as guest of the evening, was referred to as “the first of his countrymen in the walks of science,” and it was declared that, “as the monarchy of France had done homage to her Laplace, so would the republic of America not be ungrateful to her Bowditch.” Dr. Bowditch spent the latter years of his life in “peaceful mathematics,” as he expressed it, dying in Boston at the age of sixty-five. During the last part of his life he suffered a great deal but was always cheerful. When the news of his death was received, most of the American ships in many parts of the world set their flags at half-mast, and many other tributes were paid to him in America and Europe. The Salem Marine Society in the resolutions passed on this occasion said: “In his death . . . not this community, nor our country only, but the whole world, has reason to do honor to his memory. . . . As long as ships shall sail, the needle point to the north and the stars go through their wonted courses in the heavens, the name of Dr. Bowditch will be revered as one who helped his fellow-men in a time of need, who was and is a guide to them over the pathless ocean, and as one who forwarded the great interests of mankind.” Dr. Young in his eulogy says, “He was a Great Pilot who steered all our ships over the ocean; and though dead, he yet liveth.... in the recorded wisdom of his invaluable book.” There is a painting of him in the Salem Museum, an organization composed at one time only of masters and supercargoes who had sailed beyond Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. Every member had to make a record of his voyage and deposit it on his return in the Museum. His statue is in the entrance hall of the Boston Athenæum, of which he was a trustee; there is still another painting in the Hospital Life Insurance Company.
When Dr. Young visited the house in which the Bowditch family lived in Danvers he inquired of the old woman what she knew about the previous owner, and she replied: “Oh, yes, he became a great man and went to Boston and had a mighty deal of learning. I believe he was a pilot and knew how to steer all the vessels.” This was her confused idea of “The Practical Navigator.”
The house in which he was born is still standing, although not exactly in its original position. It is in the rear of Brown’s Court, where it was moved probably in the early seventies.
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