A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2015 Nov 17, 12:54 -0800
The auction also includes this old description of the book:
"FIRST EDITION OF ONE OF THE GREATEST BOOKS ON PRACTICAL NAVIGATION. On his voyage in 1800, skilled navigator and mathematical prodigy Nathaniel Bowditch discovered numerous errors in the existing navigational literature at the time. He realized that the English Navigators had been calculated on the erroneous assumption that 1800 was a leap year, causing his ship to go 23 miles off its course. Upon further study of the material, Bowditch found over 8,000 additional errors and decided to write a new book of his own on the subject. "The result was this, the best book of its kind in English... [it] was the first complete epitome of practical navigation for the common man, and was at once acclaimed by the maritime world... Often termed the greatest book in all the history of navigation, this intellectual achievement of our early culture was indispensable to the maritime and commercial expansion of the nineteenth century" (Grolier).
This description is the traditional legend of Bowditch's Navigator, and it's a long way from fact. First, there's an explicit historical error. Bowditch did not discover the leap year error on a voyage in 1800. He was already working on an americanized version of Moore's "New Practical Navigator", and a version had been published in 1799. The leap year problem was already well-known and had been fixed in editions of Moore from 1798 onward (a year earlier?). The "thousands" of errors in the tables were inconsequential to practical navigation (differences in the last digit of a logarithm for example), and Nathaniel Bowditch himself at least admitted that. More importantly, Bowditch's Navigator certainly was not the first navigation manual for the "common man". There were many, and Moore's Navigator, from which Bowditch's "New American Practical Navigator" was largely copied, was an excellent example. Bowditch's book also was not "at once acclaimed by the maritime world" though that's what the advertising for it, naturally, proclaimed. As for being "often termed the greatest book in all the history of navigation", yes, that's technically true because people ignorant of the history of navigation have indeed often said such things. But it was one among many in its early days, and the claim that it was "indispensable" is certainly false. If Bowditch had never lived and his book had never existed, the history of marine navigation in the USA would be changed only in the most trivial of details. And the global history of navigation would be changed still less. By the middle of the 19th century, Bowditch's Navigator was an exceptionally popular book among ocean-going American navigators, and that helped create the legend that it was a unique and indispensable book.
When Richard Dunn spoke at Mystic Seaport in September, one audience member asked how the publication of Bowditch's Navigator had fed back into British navigational science, implying that it surely must have had some important influence. Richard answered simply that he did not know. I chatted with the person who had asked the question after the presentation and told him that the story of Bowditch was over-loaded with legend, and the book was not revolutionary in any way. He was incredulous, even a bit indignant, that anyone would question what is clearly "common knowledge". And so it goes... Legends die hard.