March 29, 2001
America's First Mathematician,
Astronomer and Philosopher:
by W. Leonard Taylor M.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library
What is it in the combination and
permutation of human genetics, scintillating brilliance suddenly appears brilliance
for its own sake, and brilliance that is in the confluence of unpredictable events in
history? To have such things take place in proverty, hunger, and disease makes the
outcome of this tale even more improbable. But this was the life of Nathaniel
Bowditch. His contribution of mathematics and astronomy is to the United States what
Issac Newton was to England, and La Place was to France. His name was known and
continues to be known by every captain and navigator to sail the seas. The
contribution he made to the economic wealth of the United States is unfathomable. Combine this with the untold lives that have been saved because of his contribution to the
safety of marine navigation, and you have a true American hero.
W. Leonard Taylor M.D. is Chief of Pathology and Medical Director of
the Department of Pathology at Redlands Community Hospital. He began work as a
Pathologist in Redlands in 1965 following residency at the University of Washington and
Loma Linda University.
He was born in Los Angeles and raised in Martinez California on the
Sacramento river. He obtained at BS degree in Physics and Mathematics at Pacific
Union College in Napa County, and a MD degree from Loma Linda University.
For the next three years he was in the U S Navy stationed at
the U S Radiological Defense Laboratory in San Francisco examining the effects of
radiation on living systems following the nuclear testing at Bikini.
It was during this time he became interested in Pathology which lead to Seattle and
to his studies at the University of Washington.
He is a Fellow of the College of American Pathologist and a
member of the American Society of Clinical Pathology. During the past 36 years
he has been active in the San Bernardino County Medical Society, serving on their Board of
Directors for many years and as President. At present he is a member of the Redlands
Sunrise Rotary Club, and RACES providing emergency communication for the Redlands Fire
Department through Amateur Radio. He has also been involved with many world wide
projects associated with Earthwatch. He is a member of various community
organizations. More recently he became a member of the Fourtnightly Club.
He and his wife are the proud parents of two sons and a
daughter and soon will have eight grandchildren with each child having a set of
twins. His hobbies are Astronomy, Amateur Radio, Sailing, Travel and
America's First Mathematician, Astronomer
and Philosopher: Nathaniel Bowditch
The great great grandfather of Nathaniel was William
Bowditch, a clothier of Thorncombe, England. He
left England in 1681 on the good shipp called John during the summer, and
landed in the community of Salem. His son,
the great-grandfather of Nathaniel, who was the second William Bowditch, became a
shipmaster using almost suicidal ships. They
were high-sterned clumsy crafts whose safe
passage was an imposition of Providence. Bills
of lading were written in prayerful terms. A
bill of lading for one of William Bowditchs ship read Sailed by the grace of
God in good order and well conditioned, by Samll Browne, Phillip English, Capt.
William Bowditch, Wm. Pickering, and Samll Wakefield, in and upon the Good sloop
called the Mayflower . . . bound for Virginia
or Merriland . . . and so God send the Good sloop to her desired port in Safety. Amen.1.
Although William Bowditch, Nathaniels great grandfather, was
a wealthy merchant and a good captain, in 1700, he managed to wreck his galley, the Essex,
on an uncharted rock in Salems harbor. This became known as Bowditchs Ledge. Although tricked by a submerged rock, to his
credit, he was untouched by the witchcraft frenzy that swept through Salem during this
time. Before the end of his days in
1728, he fathered 11 children. Only one of
whom, Ebenezer, transmitted his name. Ebenezer
was the grandfather of Nathaniel and also followed the sea in the days of ghost ships and
sea serpents.1. These
superstitious fears were reality to the seafaring community. We look with amusement at these quaint beliefs,
but nearly a century later a ghost ship was to play a major role in the future of our hero
and the future of the United States. Ebenezer
married Mary Turner on Aug 15, 1728. Mary was
the daughter of a very wealthy member
of the Provincial Council. We would consider
her age of 22 to be entirely appropriate. Not
so to that generation. At her wedding, the
local news paper referred to her as the ancient and honorable Miss Turner. 1.
From this marriage was born Habakkuk Bowditch, Nanthaniels
father. He was a man of little education, but
was accounted not destitute of power of
mind. He grew up to be a shipmaster and
was remembered for four things: his wreaking at least two ships at sea, his inability to save money, his knowledge of the Scriptures and his
extraordinary consumption of rum. 1.
Nathaniel was the fourth of seven children born of Habakkuks
marriage to Mary Ingersoll. It was on March
26, 1773, the year of the Boston Tea Party, and three years after the Boston massacre, the
marriage of the Dauphin of France to Marie Antoinette and the birth of Ludwig van
Beethoven. He was a year old when Salem
men prevented the landing of a cargo of tea at their port.
Somehow he escaped the great fire of Oct 6, 1774.
His mother, while waging a losing battle against poverty and illness, idolized
Nathaniel and knew he would grow up to be something definite. Their financial destitution forced them to move
three miles east to Danvers when he was two and a half years old. It was a small run down two-room house with one
room on top of the other. Danvers was known
as Hells Back Kitchen to the citizens of Salem. By then the American Revolution was well underway. However, it was Danvers that removed him from
potential harm, when at the age of three, British infantrymen were blocked by angry
citizens at the North River drawbridge. It
was at Danvers where he recalled his first memories.
One night his mother sat with him at a window pointing out the full moon. She was jingling silver in her pocket --
conforming to a superstition of a sailors wife, that her husband might have good
luck at sea.1 To this young
child, that evening was a convergence of two monumental streams of emotions -- the warmth
of his mother while watching the moon, and
being reminded of his fathers absence at sea. It
forever left a mark on his future. .
While the Revolutionary war waged on, Nathaniel and his family
returned to Salem. They lived in a little
house to the rear of a huge old place that came to be known as the House of Seven Gables. John Turner, great-great grandfather of Nathaniel,
had built this seven gabled house, and land around this house was still owned by Mary
Turner, his grandmother.1.
Salem was a town of 5,000 by this time and its mariners early
established a reputation for daring. They
followed the advice of the old salt: Always
go straight forward, and if you meet the devil, cut him in two and go between the
pieces. This attitude delivered
smashing blows at British shipping. Two hundred vessels were to put out of Salem with
crews of 7000 men and boys. Nathaniel grew up
hearing the daring of Captain Jonathan Haraden, a captain from Salem, who brought back
scores of prizes. His fame reached a climax
in a battle off Bilfao. This battle was watched by thousands of spectators in small boats. He outmaneuvered his adversary, the Achilles, which was a much larger ship. By loading his guns with crowbars he
decimated Achilles decks.1.
A man, Richard Derby, soon to become the richest man in America, is
mentioned during this time in an interesting description of Salem waterfront. Salems privateering was a boisterous
enterprise. Men with flag and drum marched
through the streets when a crew was to be signed on.
Before sailing, the crew gathered at a harborside tavern, where the owners of the
privateer paid for bowl after bowl of punch and grog that sent the men roaring. One of the liveliest places along the
Massachusetts coast was the Derby Wharf, from which sailed the ships of Richard Derby to
make his Salem fortune grow during the war. Out
on the stone strip stretching into the water, a wharf on which stood warehouses, timbered
with great hand-hewn beams, were men and boys eager to get aboard the bit square-riggers,
the topsail schooner, the tall sloops, whose gun ports frowned out on the harbor. Derby was stout, impressive, and odd. Impressive because he had built a great shipping
empire for himself, and odd because he had one blue eye and one brown eye, and never went
to sea. In spite of this, he was able to
superintend the construction of his ships, and pick the best officers to navigate them. All his ships were under the command of young
officers. He was all the more impressive for
his scarlet coat, fancy waistcoat, and white knee breeches 1.
As the war waged on, another coincidence in the confluence of
history took place which had more influence
on Nathaniel than all the war put together. During
September of 1780, a Yankee privateer out of Beverly, a town next door to Salem, captured
a British merchantman off the coast of England. In
the loot was an amazing library belonging to Dr. Richard Kirwan, an Irish scholar whose
fame traveled so far in his day, that Catherine the Great was moved to send him her
portrait. The books were put up for action in
Beverly, and purchased by an apothecary intending to use the pages for wrapping paper.
Fortunately before the books were destroyed, several educated men of the community pooled
their money and bought the collection. This
library was brought to Salem thus founding and providing the nidus of the Philosophical
Library Company, and giving Salem the best scientific library north of Philadelphia. Nathaniel was one of the few in America that would
understand its contents.1.
1783, three years after these amazing books arrived in Salem,
marked the birth of Washington Irving, the publishing of poetical sketches by William
Blake and Motion of the Solar System in Space by William Herschel. Beethovens first works were printed and
Mozart completed his Mass in C minor. It also
marked the end of the Revolutionary war, the death of Nathaniels best friend
his mother, and the end of his childhood, at the tender age of ten.1.
Mention of several strong influences must be made before completely
leaving his childhood. His father, Habbackuk, managed to be at sea during all his
wifes pregnancies and births. He was
also away through the majority of the revolutionary war.
His mother who was not healthy, was the major influence on his development. Although none of the records give a cause of his
mothers death one might surmise it was consumption as it was recorded that she was
coughing up blood during the time of her sixth child.
She was further debilitated by the birth of a seventh child. Hunger was constantly present. Nathaniels clothes were torn and thin --
thin even for the summer, and totally inadequate for the cold months of winter. Winter was passing to spring when, on the
nineteenth of May 1780, at the age of seven, the convergence of three events made an
unforgettable impression --forever molding his philosophy and theology. First he and his brothers had planned an adventure
into the woods, to shoot a leopard (this idea springing from tales brought back by
Salems mariners). Second -- Nathaniel
had been aroused early to borrow a loaf of bread for breakfast. Third this day marked the day of
dread to Salem and all New England. It was
put down in the annals of Salem, as the Dark Day. 2.
On his way back to his house Nathaniel eviscerated and ate the
interior of the loaf of bread delivering to his mother nothing but a hollow loaf. The leopard trip ended in disaster with the
killing of his Uncle Jonathans cow. All
this occurred on a day which from diaries of contemporaries, one gathers it was one
of those days when the sun, if it appeared at all, was deeply obscured in the grimy mist,
a dull red dot. Pynchons diary records:
Dark morning about 10, the darkness increased and people used candles to get dinner
and read. Cocks began to crow as in the
night. Persons in the streets became
melancholy and fear seized all . . . In the evening, although the moon was up and full,
yet it was darker than ever seen by any.
Was it the fulfillment of some Biblical prophecy, the first dread event of a
new dispensation? Mary Bowditch thought this darkness cast over the earth may be the
shadow of the Lord approaching in awful majesty to judge the world. 2.
This dark day of dread occurred as Uncle Jonathans cow lay
dead in the woods. Nathaniels brothers
had run off in the darkness, leaving him lost. The
conscious stricken child knew that God had seen his sin.
That was why it was dark. He fell
sobbing to the ground convinced that God had stricken him down cut down by His
anger. Then he began to reason than he was
not the one that had killed Uncle Jonathans cow.
He had not even carried the gun. It
was unfair and wrong that he should be singled out in this way for punishment. And as for the contents of the bread loaf -- he
was terribly hungry. After returning home,
he expected to be severely punished. To be
whipped to sit in a chair for two days with nothing to eat -- anything for penance
to cleanse his sins. However, nothing was
done to release him from this shadow of guilt. It was his to carry for many years to come.2.
Soon after he entered school where his
abilities in mathematics (ciphering as they called it) became well recognized. This was at a certain expense to himself His teacher accused him of getting help and
cheating. But to him it was the fulfillment
of a continued and intense feeling -- mysteriously complex in his forming mind. This determination to cipher was referred to by
Nathaniels son many years latter as becoming his fixed idea. He used every available minute to learn
mathematics. At the age of ten, however, his
father forced him to stop his meager formal schooling, to help in his trade as a cooper. After a year even his father thought something
better for his son. He indentured him to
Ropes and Hodges, the local ships-chandlery store. 1.
The indenture read in part: This indenture witnesseth that NATHANIEL
BOWDITCH hath put himself, and, by these Presents, do the voluntarily and of his own free
will and accord, and with the consent of HABAKKUK BOWDITHCH put and bin himself apprentice
of ROPES AND HODGES to learn the Art, Trade or Mystery of SHIP CHANDLERY for and during
the term of NINE YEARS. During
all which said term and said apprentice NATHANIEL BOWDITCH shall faithfully serve . . . He
shall not absent himself by Day of Night from the same Ropes and Hodges service without
It was also stipulated that
he could not contract marriage.5.
One must look far and wide to find an
individual who taught himself as much during his teenage years. He taught himself how to
speak Latin, French and Spanish by using New Testament Bibles that were written in each of
these three languages. He made extensive notes as he poured through his studies. By the
time he was eighteen his own personal library had grown to 2,000 pages in his own
handwriting. Actually it was much more than
2000 pages in ordinary print as his handwriting was very small. Three stimulating
individuals provided invaluable support. One,
Nathan Reed, who was an apothecary, an
energetic inventor, a Congressman and a judge. John
Quincy Adams was his personal friend. He
experimented with a steamboat, propelled by paddle wheels well ahead of Fultons
steamboat. He improved the steam boiler,
and mulled over the idea of a steam road carriage an idea that moved Congress to
laughter. Reed had studied at Harvard and
exerted tremendous influence on Nathaniel. He
warned Bowditch against the religious
fevors latent in Christian breasts, and had bade him beware of exciting them; had shown
him that while Servetus, Bruno, and Galileo, for instance, had projected no atheism, two
were burned and the third forced to a degrading recantation, because the views they held
in science were taken as assaults on the Bible.2. The other two were ministers -- Reverend
John Prince and the Reverend William Bently. John
Prince was the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Salem. He had a strong interest in philosophy and
invention. At the age of 80 devised an
improved telescope mount. Fortunately for
Nathaniel, it was Princes home that housed the great Kirwan library. William Bentley was a minister of
exceptional scholarship, a noted linguist, gossip, diarist and journalist. He fought for Unitarianism when New England was
Calvinistic. He dared to be a Jeffersonian
Republican when most of his community was Federalist.
It is said he horrified all Essex County by inviting a Roman Catholic priest
to his house.1. These three men
regularly would stop by the ship store to give Nathaniel encouragement and provide him
with books. All had extensive libraries in
their own right.3.
When Bowditch reached 21 and began to
wonder about his future, the coincidence of events again provided an unforeseen
opportunity. The State of Massachusetts
decreed in 1794 that the various towns within its boundaries should be surveyed. The job was given to Reverend William Bentley and
Jon Gibaut, a shipmaster. The year Bowditch
ended his apprenticeship, the two men put Bowditch to work as their assistant. Bentley was impressed and wrote in his diary
about Bowditchs ability with figures. He
said: No proofs did he neglect to
confirm his results. Also, We
found him powerful in calculation. Surveys
were a big business of the time. Bowditch
could well have remained in such activities except for the third man on the team
Captain Gibaut. He was so impressed by the
young man that he wanted him to join him at sea on his next voyage. So as the pastor, the shipmaster, and Bowditch
surveyed their way around Salem it was arranged. In
a few months (January 11,1795) John Gibaut was to commanded one of Derbys ships, and Bowditch, a young man of 22, was to go along as clerk.1.
Nathaniel Bowditch was a small man
by his own admission about 5 ft 4 inches when stretched. 5. The Reverend William Bentley wrote
that he had a head and countenance in his favor. His forehead was high and rounded with deep dark
searching eyes. He had an invincibly
cheerful disposition. At the time of his boarding he was prematurely gray. In a few years he would be pure white. Starting a sea career as clerk gave him the
opportunity to learn seamanship without having to be a common sailor and serve
before the mast. To be chosen as a officer on
an Elias Haket Derby ship was a particular recommendation.1. But what none of them knew at the time, was
that Bowditch, at age 22, had the most creative and best informed mathematical mind in
Bowditch knew how to navigate and how to
handle navigational instruments but he did not know how to keep a ships log or sea
journal. To learn this, he borrowed sea
journals of Captain Gibaut and copied long sections of them. His notebook contains a lengthy paper by Gibaut
entitled Particulars Relating to the Navigation and Trade of the East Indies,
with details on the trade winds, the monsoons of the Bay of Bengal, the Gulf of Siam, and
the China Sea.1.
As the day of departure neared, rumors
were swirling through Salem. Most of the
town gossip found its way to Reverend William Bentley and went into his diary. On the night of Dec. 5, 1794, Bentley wrote by candlelight: Capt. Gibaut has unhappily had a difference
with Mr. Derby which prevents the prospect of his voyage at present. 1.
A few days later the scarlet-coated Mr.
Derby sat in his office with an alternate bold-faced shipmaster named Henry Prince. The matter to be settled was Princes clerk.
Derby mentioned Bowditch. Prince
knowing Bowditch replied, I should like it above all things.1.
Captain Princes ship, the Henry, held little curiosity. She had been built of pine on Derby Wharf four
years earlier. She was a small ship by 18th
century standards because shipping men of Salem did not believe in putting all their
cargoes in one bottom. Three small ships were
believed to be better than one large one.1.
The details of the voyages will be
largely omitted, but as a navigator, mention should be made of the charts. All of them were incomplete and peppered
Bowditchs own uncle, Captain Jonathan Ingersoll, had taken the Grand Turk on her first voyage to the Cape of Good
Hope with a few erroneous maps and charts, a sextant and a Gutheries
Grammar. This last-named work was
wonderful indeed. It disposed of most of the
southern part of Africa with the simple word --Hottentots..
Among the quaint maps and hodgepodge of information it contained was A Chronological Table of remarkable Events,
from the Creation to the Present Time 1 . quite an aid to
Another observation is of interest,
through the eye of a 22 year old raised in Puritan New England. Upon reaching the
Isle of Bourbon, he was spiritually shaken by these French colonials -- mistresses who
were bold about their lack of virtue, men who gleefully boasted of their tomcat habits,
wives who had an eye for any man except their husbands, men and women who actually
discussed infidelity before quests. After
reflection on their goings-on, he wrote in his sea journal (of all places): Oh, my
country, how much dearer to me is the demeanor of thy daughters than that of the women of
this country. 1.
Their trip back to Salem was marked with
unusually dirty weather through most of December. Little
was put in the sea journal except calculations of positions. On Christmas day two entries
were made in addition to his navigational data. One
stated: This day is the one celebrated by the Romanish and other churches, as the
anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. Even
the reformed churches esteem it as a great festival.
The Americans have reason to remember it with gratitude on account of the taking of
the British troops at Trenton on 25 Dec. 1776.
On the bottom of the page written as an afterthought, was a momentous entry written
in his little hand. Thursday thought of
a method of making a lunar observation which to me is new and in some respect I think it
preferable to any method hitherto published. It
marked the start of his career as a writer on navigation and of major significance for the
science of navigation. The entry having been
made he turned to the back of the journal and wrote out his formula. Exactly one year after starting her voyage the Henry came to anchor in Salem Harbor, on Jan. 11,
Bowditch was to go to sea four more
times in the next seven years. Three were
aboard the Astrea with Captain Prince, with
voyages to Manila in the Philippine islands, Alicante in the Mediterranean and another
trip to Manila. On his last voyage he
captained the Putnam to
Samatra. The time spent on these trips, when
not occupied with the affairs of ship, were spent in figuring, writing and improving his
navigational concepts. The result was the
publication of The New American
Practical Navigator in 1802. This book
was the result of multiple corrections, additions, and reorganizations to a book filled
with over eight thousand errors, written some years earlier by an Englishman, John
Hamilton Moore. Many a ship had been lost
using its erroneous data. Bowditchs
publication The New American Practical Navigator went through many new
editions and improvements, until 1868, when the newly formed U.S. Navy Hydrographic Office
bought the copyright and has continually published the book since that time under the name
The American Practical Navigator. (H.O.
Pub. No. 9). It thus has become the oldest
book published in the United States, still in current publication. The United States superiority of the seas
during the subsequent years of the Clipper ships was due to this book. It has been in the library of virtually
every ship to sail, and is affectionately known as Bowditch. At first, however, it was unevenly received. Salems shipmasters were unconvinced. To those in academic circles, however, the book
was recognized as a masterpiece. Harvard
University awarded him a Maters degree.1. 3.
We are several years ahead of our story. Captain Princes confidence in
Bowditchs navigational abilities resulted, during their second trip, in a record
voyage. It was also the first Salem to Manila
run. The trip to Manila took six months in
the face of an adverse monsoon season. When
they arrived it was to the amazement of
the other vessels in the harbor. The
last thing expected was the arrival of an American vessel during that time of year. They made the round trip back to Salem in a little
over one year when a trip ordinarily took over two years.2.
Bowditchs methods were gradually
being recognized as practical. To someone
like Derby it was extremely valuable.
Nathaniel married the following year in
March 1778, following a tender and proper courtship begun before his previous voyage. Elizabeth was the attention of many entries and
letters. Their happiness was, however, cut
short during this third trip. His ship was at
anchor in Alicante, a Mediterranean port,
when he received news of her death on December 4, 1798.
She had died October 18, of consumption, after just seven months of marriage. He was devastated.
A momentary vision of bliss had thus flitted before him and vanished forever,
. . .1.
His emotional distress was tempered
somewhat with an honor, shortly after his return from this voyage. On May 28,1799 he was elected a member of the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This
society, founded by John Adams in Boston in 1780, was to provide Bowditch a means of
publishing a many of his scientific papers in years to come. Later, in 1829, he was to become president
of the society in place of John Quincy Adams.3.
During Bowditchs fourth voyage, a
second trip to Manilla, he trained the crew details of navigation. His primary aim was to have every seaman capable
of navigating a ship at sea. In Manila,
Captain Prince was asked how he contrived to find his way, in the face of a north-east
monsoon, by mere dead-reckoning. He replied,
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. During this conversation,
Bowditch sat as modest as a maid, saying not a word, but holding his slate pencil in
his mouth: while another person remarked, that there was more knowledge of
navigation on board that ship that there ever was in all the vessels that have floated in
Manilla Bay. 3. Even the
black cook could work lunar observations. (Zacks
Correspondance Astronomique Vol.IV. p.62.)3.
This third voyage on the Astrea, ended safely back in Salem in September
1800. The following month, on October 28, he
married his cousin Mary. She was the only
daughter of his uncle, Jonathan Ingersoll. In
Salem during this time about the only person not related to someone else was someone who
had just arrived. They had seven children of
30 years marriage -- stated to be the happiest years of his life. Although he did not openly discuss his memories of
his first marriage to Elizabeth, there is evidence she was much in his thoughts. He named is second daughter after her. 3.
Two years following the completion of
his fourth voyage and his marriage to Mary, Bowditch found himself preparing for his fifth
and last trip. A new ship, the Putnam, had just been built and Nathaniel proved
his old friend William Gray how successful a pepper voyage could be made to Sumatra. A syndicate was formed with Gray, Captain Prince
and Bowditch. The vessel and cargo worth
fifty-six thousand dollars were acquired. Gray
and Prince were putting in most of their lifes earnings. As Bowditch lacked funds, the only way he could retain his place in the
syndicate would be to sail as master. This put him in an emotionally difficult position.
He really had no desire to return to the sea. Then
by another coincidence, Mr. Blunt, the publisher of his The New American Practical
Navigator, put a copy of La Places Mechanique Celeste in his
possession. Prince, by a stroke of blind
good fortune suggested that Bowditch could find time to begin a translation during the
trip. In routine matters,
remarked Prince, you could find a mate relieving you of the active responsibilities
of command. You would have time to think
through all La Place has done. Bowditch
gave his consent.2.
Records indicate the ship was navigated
with precision. Avoiding the headhunters,
the trades in Sumatra were completed with dispatch and much work was accomplished in
translating La Place. As they headed for home
loaded with wild pepper it is also recorded that Bowditch was repeatedly distracted with
thoughts of his first love, Elizabeth. This
caused him much anguish and frustration as he could not remain focused on what he really
wanted to do. But as the ship entered the
colder zone of the North Atlantic he finally forced himself to make steady notes on La
Place. As they approached the coast,
December was drawing to a close. The sea was
torn with high winds and snow. Bowditch came
on deck to take more direct command of his ship. A
prudent master, using traditional navigational skills, who found his ship in these
waters at such a time, would keep well offshore, hoping he wouldnt be dismasted or
that the seams of his vessel wouldnt open under the pounding of the seas. 4.
As Christmas day came in Salem, a
northeast storm was raging. Captain Prince
had been in his library, but the long-formed habit of going on deck in bad weather took
him from the house into the silent wind-swept streets.
It was hailing and he was bent against the icy blasts. His mind was full of reflections of storms at sea
and of course, the Putnam. He had ventured
nearly all of his wealth on this voyage. In
another month she would be due. He was
grateful he was not waiting her arrival in weather like this. It has been snowing for three days with weeks of
high wind and gales. He forced his mind to
face his possible total loss. 2.
There are many tales about what happened
next, as Christmas Day drew to a close, in the superstitious city of Salem. The facts were clear enough. But superstitions, being what they were,
interpretations of the facts with the overlay of sea serpents and ghost ships, could lead
to only one conclusion. The ghost ship, Putnam, had docked and the ghost of Bowditch was
walking the streets, a sure sign of a ship
lost at sea. A reconstruction of the
activities and conversation of those most intimately involved with the voyage brings
dramatic reconstruction of the anxiety associated with such an event.
Captain Princes dismal stream of
thought regarding the loss of his fortune on the uninsured Putnam was
abruptly startled as he made out the figure of a man coming toward him through the thick
snow. The figure almost passed him, head low,
when Prince hailed it. As the figure slowly
turned and straightened, Prince recognized William Gray.
Gray was trying to shout something
to him over the rim of his coat-collar, through the folds of his muffler. Prince could not understand anything but an
invitation to come to Grays house that evening.
He nodded assent, and Greys portly figure soon vanished noiselessly in
the whirling snow. For a while Prince kept
on walking toward the harbor . . . Then he
reconsidered. He could not see halfway
out the wharves. And beside, Gray probably
would have a fine hot toddy . . . and a
roaring fire. A thought suddenly struck him. What in the world was Gray doing out on a night
like this, in streets deserted and swept by a fierce gale?
Could there have been some report of the Putnam?
No, that was absurd . . .
When he shook the snow from his
coat on the Gray doorstop, and lifted the knocker, his face was drawn and lined. He wearily assented to William Grays
welcome, and walked with him to the fireside, where three hickory logs snapped and
flickered up into the damp chimney with their small blue flame. For some time Princes eyes rested heavily on
the coals. He hesitated to speak of what was
on his mind. Gray sat more forward on his
tufted chair. His rounded body seemed ill at
ease. Prince gradually became aware of his
hosts restless manner.
Gray called for some warm rum and
lime juice. Come, Captain,
said Gray, take this toddy it is made with English limes. It will warm you up. You look as through you had twenty-four hours on
deck. Gray sighed and thrust his legs
out before him. He sensed the focus of
Princes worry without asking . . .Prince glance up from the glass in his fingers. You mean the insurance company you
are planning to organize it finally?
Yes, replied Gray. I have been reckless in waiting this long. If I have to borrow funds from Crowninshield, I
shall put it forward at the earliest moment. With
sound underwriting, I think we can better the present rate, and still find an excellent
investment. . . . Prince replied, I for one, will gladly pay a tenth to be rid
of worry such as this. Gray scanned his
guests face closely.
Prince suddenly clenched his hand, What were you doing down by the harbor,
sir? he finally breathed out. There
cannot be a report of the Putnam off shore in
weather like this! Bowditch would
never dare it. Even if he trusted his
piloting, hed never trust his calculated position without a landfall. Princes voice trailed off into silence as
he watched Gray nod.
Yes, there was a report. A very vague one to be sure. You didnt hear what I called to you? Princes pale lips moved.
Take it easy, Captain. I had no
idea this voyage meant so much to you. All
we know is that Mrs. Bowditch sent one of the neighbors children in with some wild,
incoherent story of having seen her husband. At
least thats all I could make of it when the child came here a short while ago. Where is she? muttered Prince,
Gray glanced at the clock.
Ive been expecting her. She sent
word she would come. I had been trying to
find her when I met you. I think it is just
the hysteria of a captains wife in a storm. You
know, theyre some times peculiar.
What did the child say?
murmured Prince. Just that Bowditch was
in town, I tell you, replied Gray. Come,
Captain, you must have another toddy.
Prince rose, and restlessly paced the
floor by the hearth. Oh, be dammed to
putting your whole wealth into one vessel! A
mans a food to do it, I say. Whoever
has sailed a craft should know better. A
A servant entered the room, and stopped
at a distance from Grays chair.
Well? Gray look up sharply.
Its Mrs. Bowditch . .
. Prince and Gray exchanged rapid glances. Prince
sank into his chair. After a moments
hesitation, Gray left the room.
Alone, Prince shivered to think of what
rested with Nathaniel, torn as he was by the memory of Elizabeth madman in command
of a vessel off a snow-beaten coast . . .
A log snapped in the fireplace, and
turned Prince from his inward reflection. He
heard two voices in the hallhis host and Nathaniels wifetalking. As he listened, it seemed to him Marys voice
raised in pitch. It was truly excited in
tone. At first he moved to raise from his chair, then a sudden hopeless lethargy held him. The voices stopped, and Prince turned his head
expectantly toward the wide doorway from the hall.
Grays face bore an unnatural
Gray nodded. He swallowed.
She says she has seen her husband
tonight, he managed to say. Prince
forgot himself. Seen him? Be damned! Speak
out, man will you? Is your tongue
frozen? . . .I tell you its impossible! He stood in front of Grays
chair, his head bent forward as though he were about to dive at him. Gray drew a sharp breath. Jefferson! he called . . .
Will you show Mrs. Bowditch to the library?
Both men waited, silent, afraid to speak
further. In a moment the wind-reddened
features of Mary Bowditch appeared. She was
dressed in a thick black dress, her young figure wrapped about with a heavy shawl of dark
wool, which had become partly loosened from her shoulders when she had removed her coat,
and trailed fantastically behind her. Seeing Prince, she started forward. Halfway toward him she hesitated, overcome by the
eager wild pressure in Princes eyes. She
stopped . . .and without excuse sank to her knees.
Prince strode forward . . .is he here?
Mary Bowditch shivered as though
restraining a sob with difficulty. She
nodded quickly in answer to Princes final pressure.
Then where is he? And the ship where is the Putnam?
Hes coming back -- here -- to this very house
directly she gasped incoherently. Prince
looked at Mary, incredulous, for a full minute . . .and listlessly walked toward the fire.
Mary remained where she sank on the
floor, murmuring to herself, barely able to hold in the flood of tears that were behind
her eyes, blind to every one in the room. She
fondled a long woolen glove in her arms as though it were a baby, and crooned softly to
it. Prince stared at the glove.
It must be true, Gray said
to Prince . . . Prince shook his head. Shes
out of her mind. Shes mad! He eyes returned slowly to the prostrate figure .
. .Gray swung abruptly in his chair. I
dont know. He might have survived the
wreckif there has been one. At any
Prince nodded wearily. Yes, shes had news. See, she has his glove there in her arms. Do you see? They
brought that to her, they have found the body washed up somewhere. . . .Well
hear shortly, Gray muttered.
Mary suddenly raised her face, alert,
trembling, listening. Hes coming
now. I hear him! Its true he is here, he is alive!
Both Gray and Prince heard the distinct
dull tread of an approaching step on the porch outside.
There was a silent pause, a knock, and then the door opened, and swung in. All three felt the chill draught of air across the
Mary started toward the opening into the
hall, sobbing now in earnest. Oh, my
husband! She cried, I have prayed to the dear Lord Jesus that He send you back
safely to me. . . and He has answered my
After the trace of a moment passed
Prince heard the front door close, and a familiar voice speaking. Yes, Mary, it is truly I, but really why are
you crying? . . . Tell us breathed Prince. He walked forward heavily, and placed both hands
on Bowditchs frail shoulders, and looked deep into the weathered face. . ..
The ship Prince murmured faintly.
Indeed, sighed Gray coming
The ship is safe, returned
Nathaniel , and her cargo and money intact . . .
He placed a parcel wrapped in oilskin on
the table. In it were the invoices and notes
on La Places Mechanique Celeste.2.
As soon as the hosts had emotionally
adjusted themselves to the voyage and that the Putnam was fast to the Deby wharf, they fell to
discussing the future. It was now clear
that Bowditchs methods of navigation could no longer be ignored. His case had been proved in the most
dramatic way possible. It was this very
evening that plans began to emerge for a marine insurance company with Bowditch as its
Following that eventful Christmas
docking at Derbys warf, his fame rapidly spread.
He was elected Hollis Professor of Mathematics in Harvard. President Jefferson wanted him to be professor of
mathematics at his University at Charlostville.. Mr
Calhon, the Secretary of War asked him to take over the professorship of mathematics at
West Point. He declined them all. Considering his obvious mathematical and
astronomical genius, it is hard to understand his reticence to take such prodigious
academic positions. There seems to be no
clear statement by him or by historians as to why this was so. He had been on the board of trustees at Harvard,
so academic affairs were not a mystery to him. Indirect
evidence would suggest the answer to this must be taken in the entire context of his life. His closest friends were in business related
ventures characterized by the Putnam syndicate. The conversation of that amazing Christmas evening
with his close friends Captain Prince and Gray had formed a Marine Insurance Company. This along with the financial pressures of raising
and educating his family provide other clues. Additionally
he was spending a tremendous amount of every spare minute in translating La Place. After moving to Boston in 1823, he worked for the
rest of his life as actuary for the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company.
rapid succession he became a desired member of numerous prestigious organizations: Edenberg Royal society, Royal Society of London, Royal Irish Academy,
Royal Astronomical Society of London, Royal Academy of Palmero, British Association, Royal
Academy of Berlin, American Philosophical Society, Connecticut Academy of Arts and
Sciences, and the Literary and Philosophical
Society of New York He was awarded a Doctor
of Law Degree from Harvard University and served many years on their board of directors. He always maintained a keen interest in the
Philosophic Library that had been so important in his teenage years. It was combined with the Social Library to become
the Salem Athenaeum. The Salem Marine Society
was also an important focus of his time and money.3.
While living in Salem, before moving to
Boston in 1823, he published twentythree papers dealing with astronomy and mathematics. These in sequence of publication in the Journal of
the American Academy of Arts and Sciences are as follows:
New Method of working a Lunar
on the Comet of 1807
on the total Eclipse of the Sun, June 16,1806, made at Salem.
to the Memoir on the Solar Eclipase of June 16, 1806.
of Napiers Rules for solving the Cases of Right-angled Spheric Trigonometry to
several Cases of oblique-angled Spheric Trigonometry.
Estimate of the Height, Direction, Velocity, and Magnitude of the Meteor that exploded
over Weston, in Connecticut, December 14, 1807.
the Eclipse of the Sun of September 17, 1811, with the Longitudes of several Places in this Country, deduced from all the
Observations of the Eclipses of the Sun, and Transits of Mercury and Venus, that have been
published in the Transactions of the Royal Societies of Paris and London, the
Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
of the Orbit of the Comet of 1811.
Estimate of the Height of the White Hills in New Hampshire.
10. On the Variation of the
11. On the Motion of a Pendulum
suspended from two Points.
12. A demonstration of the Rule
for finding the Place of a Meteor, in the second Problem, page 218 of this volume.
13. On a Mistake which exists in
the Solar Tables of Mayer, Lalande, and Zach.
14. On the Calculation of the
Oblateness of the Earth, by Means of the observed Lengths of a Pendulum in different
Latitudes, according to the Method given by Laplace, in the Second Volume of his
Mecanique Celest, with Remarks on other Parts of the same Work relating to the
Figure of the Earth.
15. Method of correcting the
apparent Distance of the Moon from the Sun, or a Star, for the Effects of Parallax and
16. On the Method of computing
the Dip of the Magnetic Needle in different Latitudes, according to the Theory of Mr.
17. Remarks on the Methods of
correcting the Elements of the Orbit of a Comet, in Newtons Principia
and in Laplaces Mecanique Celeste.
18. Remarks on the usual
Demonstration of the Permanency of the Solar System, with Respect to the Eccentricities
and inclinations of the Orbits of the Planets.
19. Remarks on Dr. Stewarts
Formula for computing the Motion of the Moons Apsides,
as given in the Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
20. On the Meteor which passed
over Wilmington, in the State of Delaware, November 21, 1819.
21. Occultation of Spica by the
Moon, observed at Salem.
22. On a Mistake which exists in
the Calculation of Mr. Poisson relative to the Distribution of the Electrical Matter upon
the Surfaces of two Gloges, in Vol. XII, of the Memoires de la dlasse des
sciences mathematiques et physique de lInstitut Imperial de France.
23. Elements of the Comet of
Dr. Bowditch was the writer of eight
additional articles related to astronomical maters in a wide variety of other journals.3.
Nathaniel Bowditch was the fourth in a
family of seven and, dispite his small size and the generally believed opinion that he was
frail, he outlived all his siblings. There
is strong inference that he nearly died of consumption in 1808 during a time when two of
his sisters were dying of the same disease.. He
was coughing up blood and for a while was so moribund that recovery seemed impossible. In those days it was thought long rides in the
open air was a cure for this ailment. So for
about seven weeks long extended trips was made from inn to inn. Apparently it worked, as he was to live another 30
years. The only other physical problem
related to momentary episodes of dizziness. He
was able to anticipate these attacks. They
tended to be aggravated by exertion after eating.
Shortly before his death, at age 65, he
developed an abdominal neoplasm. Despite the
anorexia and weight loss connected with this tumor, he remained strong enough to ride to
work until four weeks prior to his death on March 16, 1838.
His mind was clear to the very end. The
President of Harvard College, Mr. Quincy, had come to visit just one week before Dr.
Bowditchs passing. This conversation
was immediately reduced to writing. I
found him sitting in his chair, in his library, emaciated, pale, and apparently wasted by
his disease to the last stage of life; his mind clear, active, and self-possessed. He spoke of his disorder as incurable; that he
felt himself gradually sinking, and that he could not long survive. I have wished to see you, said he,
to take my leave, and that you might have the satisfaction of knowing that I depart
willingly, cheerfully, and, as I hope, prepared. From
my boyhood, my mind has been religiously impressed. I
never did or could question the existence of a Supreme Being, and that he took an interest
in the affairs of men. I have always
endeavored to regulate my life in subjection to his will, and studied to bring my mind to
an acquiescence in his dispensations; and now at its close, I look back with gratitude for
the manner in which He has distinguished me, and for the many blessing of my lot. As to creed of faith, I have always been of the
sentiment of the poet, --
For modes of faith let graceless zealot fight;
His cant be wrong, whose life is in the right.
These are lines of which I at this
moment feel all the force and consolation. I
can only say, Mr. Quincy, that I am content; that I go willingly, resigned, and
This library though somber at the time
of Mr. Quincys visit was historically the scene of happy associations. President
Wyland of Brown University reflecting on his visits to the Bowditch library wrote: You saw the Philosopher, entering, with all
the enthusiasm of youth, into every subject of passing interest. You saw his eye kindle with honest indignation, or
light up with sportive glee; you caught the infection of his quick, sharp-toned,
good-natured laugh, and felt inclined to rub your hands in unison with him at every sally
of wit, or every outbreaking of mirthfulness. Let
the conversation turn in which way it might, he was always prepared to take the lead; he
always seemed to enter into it with a keener zest than any one else. You were charmed and delighted; the evening passed
away before you were aware, and you did not reflect, until you had returned home, that you
had been conversing with unrestrained freedom with the first Philosopher in America.
1. Berry, Robert Elton, Yankee Stargazer. The Life of Nathaniel Bowditch
York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. 1941
Alfred, Navigator. The Story of Nathaniel
York: William Morrow and Company 1927
by the children of Nathaniel Bowditch in Vol. I of
de la Place, Celestial Mechanics; Translated from the French with a Commentary by
Nathaniel Bowditch Vol. I-IV.
York: Chelsea Publishing Co. Inc. 1966 (reprint)
Paul E, Nathaniel Bowditch The Practical Navigator.
American Heritage Publishing Co. 1960
Bowdish, Cyrus and Mary Ella, Five
Genealogies of Bowdish and Bowditch.