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Nathaniel Bowditch (1773--1838) --- Historical Sketch

About fourteen miles north of Boston is the delightful town of Salem, Massachusetts, which now has a population of about 45,000. Located in a beautiful harbor setting, Salem is best known as the site of the famous witch trials of 1692, but the locals still honor the fact that Nathaniel Bowditch was born there in early 1773. There is a Nathaniel Bowditch School for grades K-8 in Salem, and both the house where he was born, and the house where he later lived, still stand.

Nathaniel's father made wooden casks, widely used in those days; and the Salem area was where Nathaniel was to live until he was 50. Life was not easy, and Nathaniel had to quit school at age 10 to help his father. From age 12 to 18, while working for other companies, he educated himself in languages and in mathematics. By a stroke of luck, a local Irish scientist had a large library which he allowed the young Bowditch to use from the time he was 18, and Nathaniel learned calculus, Latin, and French. Between ages 22 and 26, he sailed on merchant ships, continuing his studies while at sea and learning higher mathematics.

At age 31, married and starting a family, Bowditch entered upon a business career, becoming president of a Salem company that prospered under his leadership. All the while, he continued to study mathematics and astronomy, as well as what became known as Lissajous figures, contributing his discoveries, including naval charts of harbors, to scientific publications. He was eventually offered, but turned down, professorships at Harvard, West Point, and the University of Virginia. Continuing to publish papers in the U. S. and Europe, he became known to the worldwide scientific community as witnessed by his election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of London, and the Royal Irish Academy.

At age 50, Bowditch took a job as an actuary in Boston where he published an English translation of Laplace's four-volume work on celestial mechanics, a truly major piece of work.

Today, you can still find numerous books on navigation by Bowditch, the flagship of which is The American Practical Navigator (1802), a thick volume that for many years was the standard textbook in ocean navigation courses. Now that is staying power for a book with so much mathematical content!


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Historical sketches


Copyright © 2006 Darel Hardy, Fred Richman, Carol Walker, Robert Wisner. All rights reserved. Except upon the express prior permission in writing, from the authors, no part of this work may be reproduced, transcribed, stored electronically, or transmitted in any form by any method.

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