OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

4:00 P.M.

March 29, 2001

America's First Mathematician,
Astronomer and Philosopher:
Nathaniel Bowditch

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 Reading.

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 Bowditch’s ship read “Sailed by the grace of God in good order and well conditioned, by Sam’ll Browne, Phillip English, Capt. William Bowditch, Wm. Pickering, and Sam’ll 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, Nathaniel’s 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 Salem’s harbor. This became known as Bowditch’s 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, Nanthaniel’s 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 Habakkuk’s 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 “Hell’s 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 sailor’s 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.  “Salem’s 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.  Beethoven’s first works were printed and Mozart completed his Mass in C minor.  It also marked the end of the Revolutionary war, the death of Nathaniel’s 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 wife’s 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.  Nathaniel’s 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 Salem’s 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 Jonathan’s 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.  Pynchon’s 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 Jonathan’s cow lay dead in the woods.  Nathaniel’s 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 Jonathan’s 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 Nathaniel’s 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 leave…”  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 Fulton’s 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 Prince’s 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 Bowditch’s 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  Derby’s 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 America. 

Bowditch knew how to navigate and how to handle navigational instruments but he did not know how to keep a ship’s 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 Prince’s clerk. Derby mentioned Bowditch.    Prince knowing Bowditch replied, “I should like it above all things.”1. 

Captain Prince’s 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 with errors… Bowditch’s 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 Gutherie’s 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 navigation!

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, 1796.1.

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.   Bowditch’s 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.  Salem’s shipmasters were unconvinced.  To those in academic circles, however, the book was recognized as a masterpiece.  Harvard University awarded him a Mater’s degree.1. 3.                                              

We are several years ahead of our story.  Captain Prince’s confidence in Bowditch’s 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. 

Bowditch’s 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 Bowditch’s 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.  (Zack’s 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 life’s 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 Place’s “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 wouldn’t be dismasted or that the seams of his vessel wouldn’t 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 Prince’s 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 Gray’s house that evening.   He nodded assent, and Grey’s 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 Gray’s 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 Prince’s 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 host’s 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 Prince’s 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 guest’s 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, he’d never trust his calculated position without a landfall.’   Prince’s voice trailed off into silence as he watched Gray nod.

‘Yes, there was a report.  A very vague one to be sure.  You didn’t hear what I called to you?’  Prince’s pale lips moved. ‘No—‘

‘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 neighbor’s children in with some wild, incoherent story of having seen her husband.  At least that’s all I could make of it when the child came here a short while ago.’  ‘Where is she?’ muttered Prince, interrupting.

Gray glanced at the clock. ‘I’ve 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 captain’s wife in a storm.   You know, they’re 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 man’s a food to do it, I say.  Whoever has sailed a craft should know better.  A fool!’

A servant entered the room, and stopped at a distance from Gray’s chair.  

‘Well?’ Gray look up sharply.

‘It’s Mrs. Bowditch . . .’ Prince and Gray exchanged rapid glances.  Prince sank into his chair.  After a moment’s 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 hall—his host and Nathaniel’s wife—talking.  As he listened, it seemed to him Mary’s 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. 

Gray’s face bore an unnatural pallor.

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 it’s impossible!’ He stood in front of Gray’s 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 Prince’s 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 Prince’s final pressure.   ‘Then where is he? And the ship – where is the Putnam?’

‘He’s 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.  ‘She’s out of her mind.  She’s mad!’  He eyes returned slowly to the prostrate figure . . .Gray swung abruptly in his chair.  ‘I don’t know.  He might have survived the wreck—if there has been one.  At any rate.’

Prince nodded wearily.  ‘Yes, she’s 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.’ . . .We’ll hear shortly,’ Gray muttered.

Mary suddenly raised her face, alert, trembling, listening.  ‘He’s coming now.  I hear him!  It’s 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 floor. 

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 prayer.’

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 Bowditch’s frail shoulders, and looked deep into the weathered face. . .. ‘The ship –‘ Prince murmured faintly. 

‘Indeed,’ sighed Gray coming forward.

‘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 Place’s 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 Bowditch’s 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 president.

Following that eventful Christmas docking at Derby’s 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. 

 In 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: 

l.          New Method of working a Lunar Observation

2.      Observation on the Comet of 1807

3.      Observations on the total Eclipse of the Sun, June 16,1806, made at Salem.

4.      Addition to the Memoir on the Solar Eclipase of June 16, 1806.

5.      Application of Napier’s Rules for solving the Cases of Right-angled Spheric Trigonometry to several Cases of oblique-angled Spheric Trigonometry.

6.      An Estimate of the Height, Direction, Velocity, and Magnitude of the Meteor that exploded over Weston, in Connecticut, December 14, 1807.

7.      On 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. 

8.      Elements of the Orbit of the Comet of 1811.

9.      An Estimate of the Height of the White Hills in New Hampshire.

10.  On the Variation of the Magnetic Needle.

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 Refraction.

16.  On the Method of computing the Dip of the Magnetic Needle in different Latitudes, according to the Theory of Mr. Biot.

17.  Remarks on the Methods of correcting the Elements of the Orbit of a Comet, in Newton’s “Principia” and in Laplace’s “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. Stewart’s Formula for computing the Motion of the Moon’s  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 d’lasse des sciences mathematiques et physique de l’Institut Imperial de France.”

23.  Elements of the Comet of 1819.

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. Bowditch’s 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 can’t 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 satisfied.’” 3.

This library though somber at the time of Mr. Quincy’s 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.” 3.


1.       Berry, Robert Elton, Yankee Stargazer.  The Life of Nathaniel Bowditch

New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. 1941


2.      Stanford, Alfred, Navigator.  The Story of Nathaniel Bowditch

New York: William Morrow and Company 1927


3.      Memoir by the children of Nathaniel Bowditch in Vol. I  of

Marquis de la Place, Celestial Mechanics; Translated from the French with a Commentary by Nathaniel Bowditch Vol. I-IV. 

                        Bronx, New York: Chelsea Publishing Co. Inc. 1966 (reprint)


4.      Rink, Paul E, Nathaniel Bowditch – The Practical Navigator.   American Heritage

The American Heritage Publishing Co. 1960



5.   Bowdish, Cyrus and Mary Ella,  Five Genealogies of Bowdish and Bowditch.

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