Book Review – ‘Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a nineteenth-century man of business, science, and the sea changed American life’ by Richard Dunn

By Richard Dunn, published November 2020


For maritime historians, Nathaniel Bowditch (1773–1838) is perhaps best known as the author of the New American Practical Navigator, originally billed as the ‘epitome of navigation’, which is still published (now without New in its title) and freely available online from the US government. As Tamara Plakins Thornton shows in a more rounded biography than previous accounts have offered, however, is that Bowditch was not just a seafarer and navigator, but a mathematician and businessman whose work helped shape nineteenth-century American capitalism.

In offering this account Thornton meets head-on the hagiography of Bowditch evident in works such as Jean Lee Latham’s Carry On, Mr Bowditch (1955), a tale for young adults of a mathematical prodigy, scientific sailor, and self-made man. As Thornton points out, Bowditch, a Unitarian resistant to evangelical Protestantism, ‘would have bristled at the way his life has become an object lesson for evangelical values’ (p. 247), although she notes that he helped establish the self-made persona. This then is a self-conscious attempt to rescue the real Nathaniel Bowditch from heroic and inspirational biography. What emerges instead is a portrait of a sometimes difficult man fascinated by the regularity and order of number, who sought to impose that order in everything he did.

Taking a thematic approach that is broadly chronological, Thornton introduces the reader to surprisingly diverse areas of American life: trade, insurance, mathematics, banking, the elite circles of New England, the birth of bureaucratic administration and the rise of the printed form. She is particularly keen to address Bowditch’s mathematical and scientific achievements more critically. As she points out, although Bowditch was hailed as America’s own mathematical genius by the 1830s, his purely scientific publications lacked originality and lasting significance. That said, Bowditch transformed the world of practical affairs by bringing an insistence on order and exactitude to bear on America’s business, academic and cultural institutions …

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Filed under: Atlantic | Nineteenth Century | Pacific
Subjects include: Biography | Miscellaneous | Science & Exploration

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