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We just finished Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham — an excellent book and highly recommended — and my appetite was whetted. I had never heard of Nathaniel Bowditch in my American history studies. While I’m no history scholar, I’m better read than the average bear. If the fictionalized account of Mr. Bowditch was even partially true, this was a man of profound intelligence, ingenuity, and character who had an impact on the entire world.
Unfortunately, here in land locked Texas my local libraries carried no biography on Nathaniel Bowditch. In fact, other than the excellent Newbery Award-winning book by Ms. Latham, there aren’t any biographies of Bowditch in print. Fortunately, we live in a digital age. I found a highly recommended biography Yankee Stargazer by Robert Elton Berry. While I was unable to download it, I was able to read it online for free.
Yankee Stargazer, being a “proper biography” wasn’t quite as engaging as Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, but was still an excellent account. It also confirmed the facts in Latham’s historical fiction. Yes, that last voyage is a true story.
Bowditch only took to sea five times in his life. After his sailing days, he became a businessman — an insurance man of all things. He also straightened out Harvard’s horrendous financial mess and made enormous contributions to the field of astronomy, in addition to his amazing contribution to navigation and being the preeminent mathematician in America. Ya know, no big thing for a self-taught son of a drunken cooper.
Bowditch was the epitome of an autodidact. Forced to leave school at ten to work in his father’s cooperage and apprenticed for nine years at the age of twelve, he taught himself by reading and reason. He would copy what he learned into commonplace books, basically journals. If he wanted to learn about navigation, he’d start a book recording everything he learned.
He had a number of benefactors who gave him access to books, including Newton’s Principia which was in Latin. Since he didn’t know Latin, he borrowed a dictionary, a grammar, and a Latin New Testament and taught himself to read it. He then found an error in Sir Newton’s calculations. This was his method of learning new languages throughout his life. At the time of his death, he had the New Testament in twenty-five languages in his library.
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He learned French so that he could study more math, eventually publishing a translation and commentary of Pierre-Simon de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste, a four volume work on mathematics and theoretical astronomy.
I love this quote from Yankee Stargazer “It was said of Bowditch that he had ‘an almost aggressive form of personal integrity.’” You definitely get the picture of that when reading Carry On, Mr. Bowditch. Unfortunately, he destroyed most of his personal writings shortly before his death — including an account of his own life he had worked on with one of his sons. I would have loved to hear his accounting of his life, and I wonder what was it that drove him to that destruction.
His most lasting monument is the book he wrote in response to the error-ridden Practical Book of Navigation that was costing sailors lives. He found more than 8,000 errors he found in the British book. His own New American Practical Navigator included not only charts, but basic sailing information, instruction, terms, and his new and brilliant method of finding a “lunar” or locating one’s longitude by lunar measurements. In addition, his charts were not only correct but also structured so that a sailor with only the most basic math skills could use them to navigate. Sailors still carry “The Bowditch” as the American Practical Navigator is affectionately called.
Such was his impact that, in 1838, when he had been an insurance man for 32 years, “As word of his death spread from harbor to harbor around the world the flags of ships were lowered to half mast.”
A beautiful tribute to an amazing man.