Our schooner, Nathaniel Bowditch was named after a famous maritime figure born March 26, 1773 in Salem, MA. This great man contributed a terrific history in regards to the development of maritime math and science. As it turns out, he was highly gifted in math and language acquisition and showed his skills, in these areas, throughout his life.
When Nathaniel was 9, his father lost two ships, and his job. Shortly after this, Nathaniel experienced the death of his mother and grandmother. Nathaniel’s father was forced to place Nathaniel and his six brothers and sisters in service jobs, throughout the community. The girls became cooks and nannies for local people and the boys became ship mates.
Young Nathaniel worked and lived with the family that ran the ships chandler (store), which provided supplies to the sea captains. Nat’s fine math skills proved useful as the bookkeeper for the store. During this time, Nat made friends with the local apothecary (pharmacist) who provided Nat with many books. Many were written in Latin, so Nat used the Bible to translate the Latin into English and taught himself, Latin and French by the time he was 19 years old. When his servitude ended with the chandlery, he was hired by the city of Salem to do the first survey of the city, which still stands, today as the standard.
In 1795, with the money earned from the survey, he purchased a shipment of shoes and took them on his first ocean voyage. He was initially hired as the ship’s clerk, but his language and math ability were soon recognized. He also demonstrated the unique ability to relate to the ship’s crew and soon earned the respect of all onboard. During this voyage, he sold the shoes for a nice profit, educated the crew in reading and writing, and established himself as a viable leader.
Throughout his next four voyages, Nathaniel continued to excel and was eventually asked to help navigate. The history of Nathaniel’s father’s failures, were a notable event in the back of his mind with each journey. During his time in helping navigate, Nat found several thousand errors, in a large book of numerical tables, used to navigate. These were the same tables by which his father had navigated. He realized the errors, corrected some of them and contacted the publisher of the book. When he returned to stateside, he met with the publisher and was asked to correct all of the errors. Two years later, upon returning with the corrections, the publisher decided to publish Nathaniel’s work, as his own, plus, his new book would prove to be much more comprehensive, containing a great deal more information on celestial navigation, the mathematical formulas used for many things like computing wave height and wind speed ratios, and much, much more.
The same year his book of navigation was published, he was awarded an Honorary Master of Arts Degree from Harvard University. He was invited to the graduation ceremony, and was so humble he did not even hear his own name called.
By the time he died, he could speak 26 foreign languages, he had corrected Isaac Newton’s math in a work Newton produced, he had published a very comprehensive book of Navigation, he did a comprehensive survey of Salem, he solved the riddle of why his father crashed his ships and lost his job, he married and had a family, and finally he received an Honorary Masters from Harvard.
What an extraordinary man! This is why our boat is named after him!
Bowditch turned navigation from guess work into something verifiable, constant and mathematically based. There are many good works written about his life, but probably the best one is, Carry On Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham. This book is an easy read and a terrific biography of Bowditch’s life.
During his life, Nathaniel Bowditch wrote a book of navigation titled, The New American Practical Navigator, by Nathaniel Bowditch. This book is still used by, the U.S. Navy, navigators and seaman worldwide and became the standard for navigation. Its complete tables, charts, drawings, and text is a comprehensive aid to sailors everywhere.