Most people who are familiar with the name Nathaniel Bowditch nowadays know him for his navigational textbook, which is still carried aboard ships today. Yet this was just one artifact of a long and distinguished life which helped shape the world in which we live today. One of the many achievements of Tamara Plakins Thornton's superb biography of Bowditch is to illuminate the manifold aspects of this legacy in a way that helps readers to appreciate fully the true breadth of his accomplishments and what they reveal about a changing America.
One of the things that made Bowditch's attainments so remarkable was the humbleness of his beginnings. The son of an impoverished sailor, Bowditch was apprenticed to a ship's chandler at an early age. While learning the various aspects of maritime commerce, he taught himself advanced mathematics, and it was while on a series of voyages that he corrected the errors in the standard British navigational texts that led to the publication of his American Practical Navigator. As Plakins points out, this made him a celebrity not just for the importance of his work, but that it was one of the first examples of Americans asserting an intellectual equality with their recently-defeated mother country, becoming a point of pride for many citizens of the young country.
After developing a modest fortune during five voyages as a "supercargo" (business agent) and ship's captain, Bowditch shifted his focus to finance, becoming president of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company. Here is mathematical skills not only established his preeminence as an insurance actuary, but they also led him over time to promote a new model of business. Here Plakins makes a subtle argument for Bowditch as a link between the 18th century Enlightenment and the modern world of the late 19th and 20th centuries, as his preference for order and systems led him to establish forms and procedures that regularized previously haphazard business practices. As his stature grew, so did his opportunity to spread his approach, eventually leading him to reform Harvard University's administration and to employ trusts as a means of preserving the fortunes of the Boston "Brahmins" from the erosion experienced by their predecessors. His wealth was such that he was able to fund the publication of his translation and commentary of Pierre Simon-Laplace's Traité de Mécanique Celéste, which cemented his reputation as perhaps the foremost American intellect of his generation.
Finishing Thornton's biography may leave readers wondering why Bowditch is not better remembered today for his role in shaping our country. Her book goes far towards rectifying this, not just with a perceptive analysis that covers the range of his many activities but with a text that is a pleasure to read. Anyone with an interest in the history of the early republic, or simply those who enjoy a great and well-written work, should read this book. It is a fitting testament to a great and under-appreciated American.