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Mathematical Treasure: Bowditch’s New American Practical Navigator

Author(s): 
Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) was, perhaps, the first mathematician in the United States of America to obtain international recognition. Self-educated, Bowditch went to sea at an early age. He returned to the U.S. and became a teacher of navigation. Eventually, he went on to become America’s first insurance actuary. In 1802, he published The New American Practical Navigator, the most accurate reference of its time. The book’s title reflects the spirit and sense of national pride existing in the new country. Bowditch was awarded many honors for his mathematical accomplishments, including possible professorships at Harvard, the United States Military Academy, and the University of Virginia. He refused these university posts.

Title Page for The New American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch

The frontispiece of the book is a map of the United States and the Caribbean trade area.

Map of the United States and Caribbean from The New American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch

A recommendation by the East India Marine Society of Salem [Massachusetts] greets the reader. Such reviews and recommendations were an important part of mathematics and science books at this time. They provided some credence to the contents.

Recommendation from the East India Marine Society for The New American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch

The Table of Contents provides an outline of the scientific maritime knowledge required of a Ship’s Master at this time. Since its publication, the American Practical Navigator has remained a basic reference for the United States Navy.

First page of the Table of Contents for The New American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch

Second page of the Table of Contents for The New American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch

Third page of the Table of Contents for The New American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch

Basic arithmetical calculations and geometric and trigonometric concepts are reviewed. A geometric rational is provided for the basic trigonometric ratios.

Trigonometric ratios from The New American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch

On page 73, a diagram of the solar system is included.

Solar system diagram from page 73 of The New American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch

Page 136 contains an illustration of the maritime sextant of this period, “Hadley’s Quadrant.”

Diagram of Hadley's Quadrant, a maritime sextant, from The New American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch

The images above were obtained through the courtesy of the University of California Libraries. The work may be viewed in its entirety in the Internet Archive.

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Bowditch’s New American Practical Navigator," Convergence (July 2017)

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