The Little Mathematician Who Made a Big Difference: Nathaniel Bowditch

CarryOnMrBCarry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham

“Every ship is in danger, every time it sails. But the more men know about navigation, the safer our ships will be, won’t they? Nat isn’t working to save just one ship. He’s working to make every ship safer every time it goes to sea. Every ship in America!”

Jean Lee Latham won the Newbery Medal in 1956 for her fictionalized biography, Carry on Mr. Bowditch. The story is about Nathaniel Bowditch, a widely unfamiliar yet important Early American figure for his contributions in the fields of mathematics and navigation. Bowditch lived from 1773-1838 in Salem, Massachusetts, and is known as the “Father of American Mathematics.”

When Nathaniel Bowditch first went to school he loved it. He especially liked arithmetic, but at the age of 10, Nat was pulled out of school to help his father at the cooperage. Two years later he was apprenticed to a ship chandlery, and this ended up lasting 9 years (a typical indenture was for 5-7 years). All of his hopes of going to college (specifically Harvard) were snuffed out at this point, but Nat decided to make the most of the situation and to learn as much as he could on his own. He studied at night and began making notebooks on the information he gathered on such topics as navigation, mathematics, surveying and languages. Nat’s notebooks became a very valuable resource for him in future years. He wrote an almanac at age 16 and learned Latin on his own using a grammar text, a dictionary, and a New Testament. He went on to teach himself French, Spanish, and German the same way.

Throughout the story, we see Nat learning obedience, patience and perseverance through one disappointment and trial after another. Nat’s eagerness, willingness, and discipline to work and learn all he can eventually pay off and are put to use. After years of study and preparation, Nat is given the opportunity to use his self-acquired knowledge and skills at sea.

At the age of 22, Nathaniel Bowditch went on his first sea voyage as a clerk. Nat used his knowledge to teach and help others, and he earned the respect of everyone he worked with. In the story, Nat gets other men interested in learning and improving their skills; he believes anyone can learn if given the chance, and he takes the time and effort to educate the other men aboard ship. This keeps the men out of trouble and boosts the overall morale of the crew. Because of this many of the crew are able to take on higher positions on their next voyages. Here we see that education provides more opportunities for an individual, and that knowledge promotes liberty.

During this first voyage, Nat discovers an error in the navigation manual. Alarmed by his discovery, he brings it to the captain’s attention:

I found an error in one of Moore’s tables!…Why didn’t Moore check those figures before he accepted them?…Mathematics is nothing if it isn’t accurate! Men’s lives depend on the accuracy of those tables! It’s criminal to have a mistake in a book like this!…Men’s lives depend on these figures!

Nat goes on to show his determination and attention to detail: A few years later, on his fourth sea voyage, Nat finds 8000 errors in Moore’s and decides to write his own navigation book:

I’m going to write a book of my own. And it’s going to have three things these books don’t have. First, the tables will be correct! Second, every sea term, every maneuver, everything a man needs to know, will be explained in words any able seaman can understand. Third, I’ll put in tables – so that any seaman can solve problems in navigation – even if he has to count on his fingers to add!

In 1799, Nathaniel was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Then in 1802, Bowditch commanded his first sea voyage as the captain, to Sumatra. That same year he published his New American Practical Navigator. It sold 30,000 copies in ten editions during his lifetime and is still considered a standard text by marine navigators. Also in 1802, (no doubt to his great delight and satisfaction) Bowditch was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard College. Other achievements of Nathaniel Bowditch:bowditch

  • Elected to the American Philosophical Society, 1809
  • Awarded Doctor of Laws degree from Harvard, 1816
  • Elected as a member of the Royal Society of London, 1818
  • President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1829
  • President of the Salem Fire and Marine Insurance company for 20 years

Nat’s story does have a lot of sad moments, as many of his loved ones die, most of them at sea, but it has its share of happy and funny parts, too. I highly recommend Carry on, Mr. Bowditch for ages 10 and up. I’ve taught this book in a class, combining it with astronomy, navigation, and geography, as we mapped Bowditch’s voyages to Indonesia and learned about the places to which he traveled. We also did little studies on the side on types and parts of ships, sailing terms, and spices and where they come from.

Carry on, Mr. Bowditch also provides material for many good character building lessons and discussions. Throughout the book, Nat demonstrates diligence and hard work, and determination to finish what he starts. He remains single-minded and tenacious, never allowing people or circumstances to discourage or distract him from accomplishing what he sets out to do and never gives up on his dreams. Nathaniel Bowditch’s character enabled him to achieve excellence in his career and throughout his life. All along God gave him opportunities and experiences which prepared him – his skills, knowledge, and character – to eventually serve as the captain of a ship and more importantly to change the course of navigation in history.

The following was published in The Salem Marine Society on the occasion of Bowditch’s death in March 1838:

In Honor of Dr. Nathaniel Bowditch:

In his death a public, a national, a human benefactor has departed. Not this community, nor our country only, but the whole world has reason to do honor to his memory. When the voice of Eulogy shall be still, when the tear of Sorrow shall cease to flow, no monument will be needed to keep alive his memory among men; but as long as ships shall sail, the needle point to the north, and the stars go through their wonted courses in the heavens, the name of Dr. Bowditch will be revered as of one who helped his fellow-men in a time of need, who was and is a guide to them over the pathless ocean, and of one who forwarded the great interests of mankind.

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2 thoughts on “The Little Mathematician Who Made a Big Difference: Nathaniel Bowditch

  1. I have this book, but have never read it. WOW! It’s on my list for this school year! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Glad you found it helpful, Cindy. This book does make a great read aloud and unit study. I actually used it to teach a one-semester class at the homeschool co-op we were with before WC; wish I had the opportunity to do it again sometime. BTW, I paired COMB with Around the World in 80 Days, which also makes for a good lit/geography study.

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