Nathaniel Bowditch House

[photo] Historic photo of Nathaniel Bowditch House in 1891 and recent color image
Historic photo from National Register collection, color photo courtesy of John Goff
Nathaniel Bowditch was a prominent 18th-century mariner who effected great advances in navigation and helped bring European mathematics to America. Bowditch was born in Salem in 1773. He was schooled up to the age of 10, when he went to work in his father's cooperage. Two years later he was apprenticed to a local ship chandler (a store specializing in nautical provisions and supplies). However, his love of learning never ceased and in the hours he was not working, he taught himself Latin and French, studied mathematics including algebra and calculus, as well as science and astronomy. When his apprenticeship ended in 1795, he left on the first of five voyages to the East Indies. While at sea, he continued to educate himself by studying sailing charts and navigation, taking lunar measurements and filling notebooks with his observations.

Memorial statue of Nathaniel Bowditch at his burial site in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA
Photo by bunkosquad, found on, used through Creative Common

It was during these voyages that Bowditch documented thousands of mistakes in The Practical Navigator, a manual of navigation written by Englishman John Hamilton Moore. Bowditch would later write his own manual on navigation, The New American Practical Navigator, which also included tide tables, astronomical tables, the duties of officers and a textbook on navigation. First published in 1802, the book became every seaman's bible and was often referred to simply as a "Bowditch." It was updated and republished several times during Bowditch's lifetime. Rights to the book were purchased in 1866 by the Federal government, which continues to publish the book today. The most recent edition was published in 2002.

During his time at sea Bowditch took on increasingly more important jobs, and on his fifth voyage he was both master and part owner of the ship. After this trip he returned to Salem, where he continued his mathematical studies and entered the insurance business. Bowditch became president of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company and in 1811 bought a three-story, Federal style clapboard house at 312 Essex Street for his growing family. During the years he lived in the house, Bowditch began work translating Pierre Laplace's Traité de mécanique céleste, the great work on mathematics and theoretical astronomy.

Bowditch's study in the fields of science and mathematics earned him widespread recognition. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1799 and to the Edinburgh and London Royal Societies in 1818. In addition, Bowditch was offered positions at several prominent colleges including Harvard, West Point and the University of Virginia, all of which he turned down. In 1823, Bowditch left the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company and Salem to become an actuary for the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company. He died in Boston in 1838.

To save the house in Salem that Bowditch had occupied for more than a decade, it was moved to North Street when Essex Street was widened in the 1940s. In 1965, the house was designated a National Historic Landmark, further recognizing Nathanial Bowditch's contributions to both academia and navigation.

The Nathaniel Bowditch House, a National Historic Landmark, is located at 9 North St. in Salem. It is owned by Historic Salem Inc., which completed an exterior restoration in 2003. Interior renovations are currently underway. A walking tour entitled "Bowditch's Salem, A Walking Tour of the Great Age of Sail" was published by the Salem Maritime National Historic Site in partnership with Historic Salem Inc. and The House of Seven Gables. The brochure can be accessed online through the Essex National Heritage Area's website.

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