Thursday, March 26, 2009

March 26: Nathaniel Bowditch

Nathaniel Bowditch
March 26, 1773 – March 16, 1838

Nathaniel Bowditch was an early American mathematician remembered for his work on ocean navigation. He is often credited as the founder of modern maritime navigation; his book The New American Practical Navigator, first published in 1802, is still carried onboard every commissioned U.S. Naval vessel.

In 1787, aged fourteen, Bowditch began to study algebra and two years later he taught himself calculus. He also taught himself Latin in 1790 and French in 1792 so he was able to read mathematical works such as Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. At seventeen, he wrote a letter to a Harvard University professor pointing out an error in the Principia; at eighteen, he copied all the mathematical papers he found in the Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Among his many significant scientific contributions would be a translation of Pierre-Simon Laplace's Méchanique céleste, a lengthy work on mathematics and theoretical astronomy.

Bowditch's mathematical and astronomical work earned him a significant standing, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1799 and the American Philosophical Society in 1809. He was offered the chair of mathematics and physics at Harvard in 1806, but turned it down. In 1804, an article on his observations of the Moon was published and in 1806 he published naval charts of several harbors, including Salem. More scientific publications followed, including a study of a meteor explosion (1807), three papers on the orbits of comets (1815, 1818, 1820) and a study of the Lissajous figures created by the motion of a pendulum suspended from two points (1815).

As well as Harvard, the United States Military Academy and the University of Virginia offered Bowditch chairs in mathematics. Bowditch again refused these offers, perhaps (in the case of the University of Virginia) because the $2,000 salary offered was two-thirds of the salary he received as president of the insurance company.

Bowditch's translation of the first four volumes of Laplace's Traité de mécanique céleste was completed by 1818. Publication of the work, however, was delayed for many years, most likely due to cost. Nonetheless, he continued to work on it with the assistance of Benjamin Peirce, adding commentaries that doubled its length.

By 1819, Bowditch's international reputation had grown to the extent that he was elected as a member of the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and London and the Royal Irish Academy.

The Oceanographic Survey Ship USNS Bowditch and the Lunar crater Bowditch are named in his honor.

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