A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2016 Jun 29, 13:10 -0700
At long last, there is a real biography of Nathaniel Bowditch that largely defeats the traditional legend which so many students of navigation have learned and brings a new focus to his accomplishments in business and the mathematical professionalization of business and bureaucracy in American society.
Nathaniel Bowditch did not revolutionize the science of navigation. Bowditch did not revolutionize the narrower science of longitude by lunars. Bowditch did not write a revolutionary navigation manual. As I myself have often contended, the history of navigation would be changed only in the smallest of details if Bowditch had never lived. His famous navigation manual, the New American Practical Navigator, later the American Practical Navigator, was a great success only in the US market. Even in the rest of the English-speaking world, it was merely an "also-ran", not a bad book but also not a great book.
Tamara Plakins Thornton's new biography, Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life (available on amazon in print and kindle editions) delivers a detailed account of Bowditch's family life in the context of greater New England. We learn of Bowditch as a teenager, the self-taught math-whiz whose powers of numerical computation first wowed New England society but eventually came to be seen as something rather peculiar. We follow his voyages at sea detailing his navigational abilities, his social quirks, his rapidly-growing business acumen, as well as his rather inferior skills as a sailor. Thornton correctly describes the limited scope --greatly exaggerated in the 19th and 20th centuries-- of Bowditch's accomplishments editing Moore's New Practical Navigator and producing the americanized version to which he affixed his name. I would even argue that she does not go far enough.
Bowditch's other accomplishments in the sciences also get good coverage, and here, too, Thornton points out that these were rather minor things, which drew great praise in the intellectual backwater that was the United States of America in this era but were usually greeted with mild compliments and a sort of paternalistic encouragement from Europeans, or sometimes also savaged as the work of some country bumpkin. Bowditch's annotated translation of Laplace's Mecanique Celeste (Celestial Mechanics) is often held-up as his one great world-class scientific accomplishment, yet even here reality says otherwise. By the time it was done, it was obsolete, and it was really a teaching textbook of celestial mechanics with no real "genius" in it.
Thornton's unique thesis in this new biography is that Bowditch's life in the world of finance and bureaucracy was far more significant to the future of American life than his superficially famous Navigator. Here I'll pause and say that I have not yet read most of the second half of the book, so I can't say more on this topic right now.
Thornton's final chapter (which I have read) includes a discussion of the historiography of Bowditch and in particular she notes the strange fate that took over his legacy. The life of Bowditch became a lesson for children, and much of the literature of his life was written to present him as an exemplar of a "good boy" who accomplished something in life by sticking to his studies. Do your math homework, and be famous like Bowditch. Regrettably, the most widely-read biography of Bowditch is Jean Lee Latham's Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, which was specifically intended for a middle school audience and takes great liberties with the details of Bowditch's life and wildly exaggerates his achievements in navigational science. Thornton does not, as far as I have seen, notice the other big culprit in misrepresenting the life of Bowditch, and that is Bowditch itself --not Bowditch himself, but rather the introductory pages of Bowditch, the modern government-issue book, which through most of the twentieth century included a cartoonish and misleading description nearly as bad as Carry On... In fact, given the very large number of sailors who learned all they know about Nathaniel Bowditch from those few pages in Bowditch, it is just possible that its influence was more pernicious than those youth-oriented biographies.
I am writing this note as a preliminary review, since I haven't finished devouring this delicious book. But I can strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of early America and the history of navigation and science in the early nineteenth century. I only wish it went a little further in the direction it was headed. I give it a grade of A- (or if you prefer, 4.5 out of 5 stars). This is an excellent biography.
Finally, I should note that I first had a hint of this new biography some years ago from George Brandenburg. George was a NavList member and someone who I met quite a few times over dinners and drinks discussing Bowditch and historical navigation methods and many other topics. George was a great guy. He was also one of the first participants in my class Celestial Navigation: 19th Century Methods back in 2010. George passed away too suddenly in September 2013 (my post on that sad news). In her introduction, Thornton credits George Brandenburg with many interesting discussions about Nathaniel Bowditch but notes that she unfortunately never had a chance to meet him in person.
Again: 4.5 out of 5 stars for Tamara Plakins Thornton's Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers.
Clockwork Mapping / ReedNavigation.com
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