I hope that mariners all over the world are celebrating the birthday of one of Salem’s most eminent native sons, the nautical scientist Nathaniel Bowditch, who was born on this day in 1773. The author of the encyclopedic, and still authoritative, New American Practical Navigator, I like to think of Bowditch as one of the last self-taught, “practical” scientists: he was forced by family necessity to abandon his academic studies at a young age and taught himself classical and modern languages, algebra, calculus and astronomy while working as an apprentice at a ship chandlery in his teens. Here we have a perfect example of the determinative role of birthplace: Bowditch is clearly a product of worldly Salem in its golden age, when opportunities were many and limitations few, for men that applied themselves–and had connections and resources, of course. Even an apprentice ship’s chandler accountant, Bowditch had access to the 116-volume library of Irish scientist Richard Kirwan (1733-1812). Acquired by a Beverly privateer during the Revolutionary War and auctioned off in Salem in 1781, it is one of the foundational collections of the Salem Athenaeum. Armed with his self-education from books, Bowditch went to sea following the completion of his apprenticeship and in the course of seven voyages gained the empirical experience and data that enabled him to correct some 8000 errors in the then-authoritative navigational manual, John Hamilton Moore’s Practical Navigator and eventually issue his own American Practical Navigator in 1802. Thereafter his life was one of choices (except, of course, for his unfortunate death from cancer in 1838) and he chose the more practical role of insurance-company financial statistician rather than the academic offers that came his way, first in Salem and after 1823 in Boston: the laudatory speeches given at his farewell dinner at Hamilton Hall are still ringing in the eaves!
Nathaniel Bowditch’s birthplace on Kimball Court in Salem; Bowditch as role-model apprentice in Jean Lee Latham’s influential Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1956); The Title Pages of the first edition of The New American Practical Navigator (1802); Artist Pattie Belle Hastings’ take on the Practical Navigator, from the Smithsonian Institution’s 1995 exhibition “Science and the Artist’s Book”; Engraving of Bowditch by J. Gorss from a drawing by J.B. Longacre, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.