Nathaniel Bowditch


Born: 26 March 1773 in Salem, Massachusetts, USA
Died: 16 March 1838 in Boston, USA

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Nathaniel Bowditch's father was Habakkuk Bowditch who was a cooper, that is a maker and repairer of wooden casks. His mother was Mary Ingersoll. Although Nathaniel was born in Salem, Massachusetts, his family moved to Danvers, also in Massachusetts, while he was still a baby. After a few years, when Nathaniel was seven years old, they returned to Salem. As Albree writes in [8]:-

The first 50 years of Bowditch's life revolved around Salem, Massachusetts, a compact seafaring town along the picturesque north shore, 16 miles north of Boston.

This was a hard time for the Bowditch family. Habakkuk Bowditch's business collapsed and the family hit really hard times financially. Although Nathaniel went to school until he was ten years old, his formal education had to end at that point and he began working in his father's cooperage shop. After two years of helping his father, Nathaniel became an apprentice clerk in the ship's chandler shop of Hodges and Ropes in Salem in 1785. This shop dealt in provisions and supplies for ships. In 1790 Bowditch, aged seventeen by this time, changed his employers and began working for the shop of Samuel C Ward.

Although Bowditch was working as a clerk, he was educating himself throughout this period. Reingold writes in [1]:-

... he acquired skill in languages and considerable knowledge of mathematics and other sciences through reading and study. Bowditch's scientific career was largely one of self-education; the United States of his day afforded very little opportunity for research in astronomy and mathematical physics.

There was one way in which Bowditch was lucky. Richard Kirwan (1733-1812) was an Irish chemist who made contributions in several areas of science. Kirwan was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1780 and helped found the Royal Irish Society some years later. A privateer from Salem, that is a sailor licensed to attack enemy shipping, had intercepted a ship carrying Kirwan's library between Ireland and England and having captured it brought Kirwan's library back to Salem where it was available and used by Bowditch from June 1791. Bowditch had begun to learn algebra in 1787 and two years later he began to study the differential and integral calculus. He learnt calculus so that he might study Newton's Principia and in 1790 he learnt Latin which was also necessary to enable him to read Newton's famous work. Later Bowditch learnt other languages in order to study mathematics in these languages; in particular he learnt French in 1792.

Between 1795 and 1799 Bowditch made four sea voyages on merchant ships, and in 1802 he was in command of a merchant ship of which he was also a joint owner. Four of these voyages were to the East Indies while he made one voyage to Europe. The fourth journey was to Philippines while his last voyage was to Sumatra. This was not a period when Bowditch put his studies to one side, on the contrary there was much time at sea for him to carry on his studies and he perfected his French at this time. On his voyage of 1802-03 he read the first volume of Laplace's Traité de mécanique céleste which had been published in 1798. By June 1806 Bowditch had read the first four of Laplace's five volumes (the fifth volume was not published by Laplace until 1825).

In March 1798 while Bowditch was back in Salem between voyages, he married Elizabeth Boardman but sadly she died seven months after the wedding. In 1800, before he made his last voyage, Bowditch married for the second time. His second marriage was to Mary Ingersoll who was a cousin and together they had eight children.

Bowditch was now coming up in the world and he gave up his career as a sailor in 1804 to move into the business world. In that year he became president of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Salem and under his leadership the Company prospered despite difficult conditions due to the war of 1812 and other political problems. During the years of his presidency of this Company Bowditch undertook mathematical and astronomical investigations which gave him a high reputation in the academic world.

His New American Practical Navigator (1802) began as a project to correct and extend the work of John Hamilton Moore. In fact he published the first American edition of Moore's Practical Navigator in 1799, having collaborated with his brother on making corrections to Moore's work. In fact Bowditch loved to carry out complex mathematical computations and the task of checking and correcting Moore's work was one he greatly enjoyed. He published a second edition in 1800, but by the time he came to publish a third edition he had changed Moore's book in such a major way that it was now sensible to publish the work under his own name which accounts for his 1802 publication.

Bowditch had already received high recognition for his academic contributions, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1799. He was offered the chair of mathematics and physics at Harvard in 1806 but he turned it down. In 1804 he had published an article on observations of the moon, and in 1806 he published naval charts of the harbour at Salem and several other harbours. More scientific publications followed such as one on a meteor explosion in 1807, three papers on orbits of comets (1815, 1818, 1820), and in 1815 he studied Lissajous figures while studying the motion of a pendulum suspended from two points.

Harvard University was not the only one to offer Bowditch a chair. He was also offered one by West Point and, in 1818, he was offered the chair at the University of Virginia. However, Bowditch had a salary from the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company which was 50% higher than the $2,000 which Virginia offered him. Bowditch refused all the chairs of mathematics he was offered.

Bowditch's translation of the first four volumes of Laplace's Traité de mécanique céleste was completed by 1818 but he would not publish it for many years. Almost certainly the cost of publication caused the delay, but Bowditch did not just put the work on one side after 1818 but continued to improve it over the succeeding years. Bowditch was helped by Benjamin Peirce in this project and his commentaries doubled the length of the book. His purpose was more than just an English translation. He wanted [1]:-

... to supply steps omitted in the original text; to incorporate later results into the translation; and to give credits omitted by Laplace.

By this time Bowditch had a high international reputation for he had published articles in British and Continental journals as well as in American ones. We have already noted his election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1799. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1809, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society of London both in 1818, and the Royal Irish Academy in 1819.

In 1823 Bowditch left the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Salem and became an actuary in the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company. Albree writes in [8]:-

When Bowditch moved from Salem to Boston in 1823, he moved 2,500 books, more than 100 maps and charts, and 29 volumes of his own manuscripts. As president of the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company, he enjoyed enough material success so that he could afford the $12,000 it cost to have his translation of Laplace published (1829-1839).

The work [6] is a reprint in 1966 by the Chelsea Publishing Company of Bowditch's translation. The publisher gives this description of the work:-

The present work is a reprint, in four volumes, of Bowditch's English translation of Volumes I-IV of Traité de mécanique céleste de mécanique céleste [Duprat, Paris, 1798-1805]. The various volumes of the translation were originally published in 1829, 1832, 1834 and 1839, respectively [Hilliard, Gray, Little and Wilkins, Boston], under the title Mécanique céleste, which is here translated. The memoir on the life of Bowditch, which originally appeared in Volume IV, has been transferred to Volume I.

We should note that the memoir on the life of Bowditch originally appeared in Volume IV since this volume was not published until 1839, the year after Bowditch died.

In 1969 by the Chelsea Publishing Company published [4] which is a reprint of the French original of Laplace's fifth volume. The publisher describes this is follows:-

The present work is a textually unaltered reprint of Volume V of Traité de mécanique céleste, first published in 1825 [Duprat, Paris] .... It constitutes the fifth volume of a set, the first four of which are Nathaniel Bowditch's English translation of Traité de mécanique céleste. Although Bowditch did not make a translation of this fifth volume, he did make use of relevant portions of this volume in his running commentary in each of the four translated volumes.

Rothenberg in [9] writes of the value of Bowditch's English translation:-

It would be difficult to overestimate the value of Bowditch's translation and commentary to American physical astronomy during the first half of the nineteenth century. The work marked the beginning of American participation in the field of celestial mechanics. Not only did it allow the poorly trained professors of mathematics in American colleges to explore the wonders of French celestial mechanics, but it also became an essential part of the education of some of Bowditch's successors in the field.

Reingold, however, in [1] notes that:-

Printed in a small edition, the work was perhaps more widely admired than read, simply serving to confirm the translator's already high reputation.


Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


List of References (10 books/articles)

A Quotation

A Poster of Nathaniel Bowditch

Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor

  1. Laplace's Méchanique Céleste

Honours awarded to Nathaniel Bowditch
(Click below for those honoured in this way)
Fellow of the Royal Society1818
Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh1818
Lunar featuresCrater Bowditch

Cross-references in MacTutor

  1. Famous Curves: Lissajous Curves

Other Web sites
  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. UUA
  1. Salem Web (Bowditch's birthplace)

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