Nathaniel Bowditch (1733-1838)

November 4, 2011

Known as the “Great Navigator,” Nathaniel Bowditch was born on March 26, 1773.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts to a financially-strained family, Bowditch left school around the age of 10 to work in his father’s shop. He had a sharp memory and constantly read and studied topics ranging from literature and religion to math and science. He read Newton’s Principia at the age of 16 and discovered an error in the text. These impressive studies caught the attention of John Prince and William Bentley, Harvard-educated ministers, who arranged for Bowditch to have access to the philosophical library in Salem.

Bowditch assisted Bentley and John Gibaut, a Salem shipmaster, with a survey of Salem in 1794. His abilities so impressed his shipmates that they arranged for him to go to sea, sailing to the East Indies. He made five voyages over the course of the next five years, traveling to the Indian Ocean, Far East, and the Mediterranean. His time abroad allowed him to gain proficiency in foreign languages, make lunar and meridian observations, and teach others on board.

In 1772 Bowditch was asked to proofread a copy of John Hamilton Moore’s popular English work, Practical Navigator. He published The New American Practical Navigator in 1802, after correcting over 8,000 errors in the original text and adding additional information. The book was a worldwide success and is still a leading text on navigation to this day.

Bowditch was chosen as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1799 before becoming its president in 1829. He penned numerous articles for their Transactions and Memoirs on topics ranging from comets and meteors to pendulums. Bowditch began translating the classic astronomy text, Mécanique Céleste, by Pierre LaPlace, in 1814. This expanded and annotated translation was also a great success.

After settling in his hometown of Salem in 1804, Bowditch began surveying and mapping the neighboring harbors. He acted as an Overseer for Harvard from 1810-26, and received an honorary degree of Master of Arts from the University. In 1816, they also awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Laws. He also worked as an actuary for the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company from 1823 until his death in 1838.

Bowditch married twice. His first wife, Elizabeth Boardman, died the same year they were married, while he was at sea. In 1800 he married his cousin, Mary, and the couple had eight children. Bowditch died in 1838 and was buried in a tomb at Trinity Church. He was later moved to Mount Auburn to be buried with his wife. Following Bowditch’s death, the sailors of the East Coast sought to memorialize the “Great Navigator,” and through a contribution fund they were able to pay Robert Ball Hughes to sculpt a statue in his likeness. Mount Auburn’s trustees agreed to contribute a small piece of land on Central Avenue near the Cemetery’s entrance to display the resulting bronze sculpture of Bowditch surrounded by the tools of his trade.

Nathaniel Bowditch monument

Nathaniel Bowditch is buried at Mount Auburn in Lot 1207 on Tulip Path.

Adapted from the research of Judy Jackson and Laura M. Gosman, as published in Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week: Nathaniel Bowditch, 2002.

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