BowditchPosted: February 14, 2012
Reading The Flowering of New England by Van Wyck Brooks. Terrific, although seems specifically designed for my own personal brains. VWB seems to know everything about everybody who was alive in New England between 1820-1860, and talks about them all like they’re his kooky old pals. Here he is, diverting himself to talk about Nathaniel Bowditch.
So was the most illustrious of the Salem worthies, the great mathematician, Nathaniel Bowditch, the author of The Practical Navigator, a little, nimble man with burning eyes, with silky hair prematurely white, who darted about rubbing his hands with excitement. This second Benjamin Franklin, the son of a poor cooper and mechanic, who had learned his Latin as a boy in order to read Newton’s Principia – in which he found an error – had found eight thousand errors in the best English book on navigation. The book he had written himself, the Navigator, had saved countless lives and made the American ships the swiftest that had ever sailed. Everyone knew that, as a supercargo, bound for Sumatra and Manila, Bowditch had mastered astronomy so well – between the stars that he watched from the deck and the books he carried with him in his berth – that he was able to revise Laplace. Everyone knew how, on a Christmas night, in the midst of a blinding snow-storm, when he was captain of his own ship and there was not a landmark to be seen, Bowditch had sailed straight to his Salem wharf, as if it had been a sunny day in June.
Discussion question: who do you know who darts about rubbing his/her hands with excitement?
Mentioned all this to one of our correspondents, who told me that as a boy he was made to read this:
What?! From the somewhat scolding wikipedia article about this book: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch includes many dramatized and fictional components, including a chapter implying that Bowditch invented the lunar distance method of navigation when, in fact, his contribution was a relatively minor technical improvement in mathematical calculations.
Point is, when it comes to Bowditch, everybody’s getting worked up in all the best ways.
(stole picture of Salem from a real estate site)