Samuel G. (Samuel Griswold) Goodrich.

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The Practical Navigator.'

" The second old lady stated, that ' Nat went to
school to her aunt, in the revolutionary war, in the
house where Ave were sitting, when he was about
three years old, and that she took mightily to him,
and that he was the best scholar she ever had. He
learnt amazing fast, for his mind was fully given to
it. He did not seem like other children. He seemed
better. His mother was a beautiful nice woman.'

" The third old lady said, that ' Nat was a little,
still creature ; and his mother a mighty free, good-
natured woman. She used to say, " who should be
cheerly if a Christian shouldn't?" Her children
took after her, and she had a particular way of guard-
ing them from evil.'"

The family returned from Danvers to Salem, when
Nathaniel was about seven years old, and he was
now sent to the best school in that town. The privi-
leges that it afforded, however, were exceedingly
scanty, and far beneath those of the poorest district
school in Massachusetts at the present day. The
subject of our memoir, however, took full advantage
of these opportunities. It is even said, that such was
his proficiency in arithmetic, that he readily solved
questions which the teacher supposed to be beyond
his ability, and suspecting that he had obtained assis-
tance, and attempted to impose upon him, he was in
one instance on the point of chastising hini.

Even these poor advantages were relinquished at
the age of ten years, when he Avas taken by his father


into the cooper's shop, that he might assist n the sup-
port of the family. Not long after, he was entered as
a clerk in a ship-chandlery, in which employment he
continued till 1795. His leisure time was chiefly
devoted at first to arithmetic, and afterwards, as he
advanced, to mathematics. His slate and pencil were
so constantly in hand as to attract attention, and one
person remarked to him satirically, that if he kept on
ciphering, he had no douht that in time he might
become an almanac-maker. He also tried his dexter-
ity in philosophical experiments. He constructed a
curious barometer with his own hand, and there is
still in existence a wooden sun-dial which he made in

These were the pursuits of his leisure moments, and
deeply as they interested him, they rarely interfered
with the active discharge of his duties. At one time,
however, a customer called, and purchased a pair of
hinges. When the man came in, the young clerk was
deeply engaged in a mathematical problem. When
the customer had departed, he returned to his problem,
thinking he would finish it before he charged the
hinges. He became involved in his mathematics, and
forgot to make the entry. Shortly after, the purchaser
came to pay for his purchase. It happened that the
master of the establishment was there ; the youth's
neglect was exposed, and the lesson it afforded did
not pass unheeded. He has often said that he never
forgot the hinges.

His interest in mathematics increased. He became
acquainted with algebra, and learned the elements of
navigation from a British sailor, then residing at


Salem. He rose early in the morning, and devoted
his stolen hours to study. In the long winter even-
ings, he sat by the kitchen fireside of his employer,
engaged in his favorite pursuit, though occasionally
lending a hand, at the request of the nurse, to rock the
cradle. Being fond of books, and having no guide in
their selection, he perused whatever came in his way.
He read the whole of Chambers' Encyclopedia in four
volumes, folio, without omitting an article. He perused
Shakspeare, and treasured up its finest passages in his
memory. He studied the Bible, and his familiarity
with the Old and New Testament surpassed that of
many professed theologians.

He finally obtained free access to the Athenreum
Library of Salem, which was then rich in V7orks of
science ; among its treasures were the Transactions
of the Eoyal Society of London. All the mathemat-
ical papers in these and other similar works were
wholly or partially transcribed by him at this period,
and are still preserved in his library. These manu-
script copies consist of more than twenty volumes. The
contents of one of them is as follows : "A Complete
Collection of all the Mathematical Papers in the Phi-
losophical Transactions ; Extracts from various Ency-
clopedias ; from the Memoirs of the Paris Academy ; a
complete copy of Emerson's Mechanics ; a copy of
Hamilton's Conies ; Extracts from Gravesande's and
Martyn's Philosophical Treatise, from Benoulli, &c.
&c." All this was done by a ship-chandler's clerk!
Such vast labor thus bestowed, partly with a view of
impressing the subjects upon his mind, and partly to
possess what he could not otherwise obtain, evinces a


degree of zeal in the pursuit of knowledge, which no
obstacles could withstand.

In his progress, our young student came at last to
Newton's Principia, a work of the roost abstruse
mathematics, and written in Latin. He yearned to
penetrate its mysteries, and sought to do so by his
knowledge of mathematical subjects, and the various
equations and diagrams which it contained. But the
effort was not satisfactory. Should he then turn
back ? No ; genius is not baffled, but benefited, by
obstacles. The mountain that crosses the path is not
only surmounted, but is made the footstool upon
which new and wider views are taken. He set to
work, and made himself master of the Latin language,
and thus obtained the key to the particular knowledge
he sought, while he also opened the way to the acqui-
sition of other languages, and other stores of science.
While still a clerk, it is said that he wrote out a
translation of the Principia into English.

He was now desirous of learning French, and it
chanced that he met with a foreigner in Salem, who
wished to learn English. Bowditch proposed " a
swap," and accordingly he instructed the stranger in
his native tongue, and in turn was himself instructed
in the language he wished to acquire.

The ancestors of Dr. Bowditch had followed the
sea, and, in the year 1795, he adopted the same pur-
suit. His first voyage was performed in the capacity
of clerk. In this he was bound to the Isle of Bourbon,
and was absent one year. He took out a small ven-
ture in shoes, which resulted in considerable profit.
He now went several voyages as supercargo, and at


last, in 1802, he sailed from Beverly, for Sumatra, in
the ship Putnam, being both master and supercargo.

During one of his voyages, it chanced that the ves-
sel was chased by a French privateer, but being well
armed and manned, the captain determined upon
resistance. The duty assigned to Bowditch was that
of handing up the powder upon deck. In the midst
of the preparations, the captain looked into the cabin,
when he was no less surprised than amused at finding
his supercargo quietly seated by his keg of powder,
and busily occupied, as usual, with his slate and

During these several voyages, Bowditch spent his
leisure hours in study. "With the sea around, and the
sky above, apart from the templing pleasures and
intruding cares of busy life, he gave himself up to
communion with those sublime sciences, which would
solve the mysteries of the visible universe, and dis-
close the laws by which the great energies of nature
are guided and controlled. Nor was he selfish in his
pursuits. He was fond of imparting knowledge to
those who were willing to learn. On board the ship,
he frequently instructed the sailors, and it is related
that, in one of his voyages, he taught a whole crew of
twelve men to work lunar observations; and it is
farther stated, that every one of these twelve sailors
subsequently attained the station of at least second
officer on board a ship !

Young Bowditch did not confine his studies to
mathematics. He loved the acquisition of languages,
and, during his sea life, mastered the Italian, Portu-
guese and Spanish. It may be mentioned here that


afterwards, at the age of forty-five, he acquired the
German, and obtained a slight knowledge of Dutch.
He took pleasure in tracing words from one language
to another, and was doubtless much amused to find, on
one occasion, that a Spanish boy on board his vessel,
whose Christian name was Benito, was entered upon
the books of his ship as Ben Eaton. He acquired
some knowledge of the Greek, but at what period is
not known. He always began to learn a language by
taking his New Testament and dictionary, and attempt-
ing immediately to translate. Thus he left in his
library -the New Testament in more than twenty-five
different dialects or languages.

In March, 179S, Bowditch married Elizabeth Board-
man, and, soon after, went upon his third voyage. On
his return, his home was desolate. She had died, at
the early age of eighteen. Feeling that an alliance
so brief did not justly entitle him to the property
which he had thereby acquired, he surrendered the
whole of it to the relatives of his late wife. In 1800,
he married his cousin, Mary Ingersol, a lady of
uncommon personal attractions, and who, during a
union of thirty-three years, thrcAv around his fireside
all the charms of cheerfulness and comfort.

It was about this period of his life that Bowditch
published his Practical Navigator. He had issued
two editions of the treatise of John Hamilton Moore,
with notes and corrections ; but, in 1802, he had cor-
rected so many errors, that he was induced to publish
it under his own name. From that time, the work
has been exclusively used by our shipmasters, and its
tables and rules have been adopted in foreign works.


In successive editions, he introduced various improve-
ments, and at last brought it to a great degree of per-
fection. He sought w^ith the most untiring patience
to make the work absolutely correct; for he well kncAV
that many lives and property to a great amount might
be sacrificed by a single inaccuracy. In the original
work by Moore, the year 1800 was set down as a leap
year in the tables of the sun's declination, thereby
making a mistake in some of the numbers of twenty-
three miles, and causing the actual destruction of
several ships.

The labors of Mr. Bowditch in this useful work
have been justly appreciated. It goes, says the Lon-
don Athenaeum, " both in American and British craft,
over every sea of the globe, and is probably the best
work of the sort ever published." It has been pro-
nounced, says Judge White, " to be, in point ot practi-
cal utility, second to no work of man ever published.
This apparently extravagant estimate of its importance
appears but just, when we consider the countless
millions of treasures and of human lives which it has
conducted, and will conduct, in safety, through the
perils of the ocean. But it is not only the best guide
of the mariner in traversing the ocean ; it is also his
best instructor and companion everywhere, containing
within itself a complete scientific library, for his
study and improvement in his profession. Such a
work is as Avorthy of the author's mind as it is illus-
trative of his character ; unostentatious, yet profoundly
scientific, and thoroughly practical, with an effective
power and influence of incalculable value."

Upon the close of his sea-faring life, Mr. Bowditch


was elected president of an Insurance Company m
Salem. In this, he acquired such a reputation for
superior judgment and discretion, that, in 1S23, large
inducements were offered him to remove to Boston,
and take charge of the Massachusetts Hospital Life
Insurance Company. This proposal he accepted, and
continued in this station till his death. Upon this
institution, which was the child of his affections, he
bestowed the most tmwearied care, patience and
industry. His conduct, indeed, furnished the model
which maybe well followed by those who are charged
with similar trusts. Courteous in his manners, he
was at the same time vigilant, fearless, and decided.
He was well rewarded by the success of the institu-
tion, and the implicit confidence of the public.

In 1807, Mr. Bowditch had completed a survey
of the harbors of Salem, Marblehead, Beverly and
Manchester, the result of which was a chart, alike
remarkable for its beauty and exactness. At intervals
of leisure, he wrote various essays, chiefly upon
mathematical topics, and which were communicated
to the public through the scientific periodicals of the
day. These all display talent, and some of them
evince powers of the highest order. In 1815, he
commenced the translation of the Mechaniquc Celeste
of La Place, four volumes of which were completed
in three years. The fifth volume, published by La
Place, twenty years after the others, he did not live to

The translation he had thus made was published
by Dr. Bowditch in four volumes, quarto — and in a
style of great beauty — during the latter period of his


life. The first appeared in 1S29, the second in 1832,
the third in 1S34. The fourth and last was not
quite finished at his death. It is not easy to overrate
this prodigious effort. The work of La Place, dis-
coursing of the sublimest science, was the production
of the greatest mathematical mind of modern times ;
and such was its reach of science, that probably
very few men in the world were fully competent to
master it. Dr. Bowditch's work was not a mere
translation. "I regard it," says M. Legendre, "a
new edition, augmented and improved, and such a
one as might have come from the hand of the author
himself, if he had consulted his true interest." "It is
a proud circumstance for America," says Mr. Babbage,
in a letter to the translator, " that she has preceded her
parent country in such an undertaking, and we in
England must be content that our language is made
the vehicle of the sublimest portion of human knowl-
edge, and be grateful to you for rendering it more
accessible." It was to a great extent an original work,
and showed that the author was not behind his great
original. It was a task which few other living indi-
viduals could have performed. It excited the amaze-
ment of the learned of Europe. It did not abate their
wonder, that such a work should appear in America,
and that it should be the production of a shipmaster.
The ability of such a man as Dr. Bowditch could
not be concealed or unacknowledged. So early as
July, 1S02, and while his ship was lying wind-bound in
Boston, he received the honorary degree of Master of
Arts from Cambridge College, and from the same
nstitiition he subsequently received the degree of



Doctor of Laws. In all this, the institution rather
received, than bestowed honor.

We cannot enumerate the various honors bestowed
upon the subject of our memoir. It must be sufficient
to state, that he became president of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences in the year 1829,
being the successor of John Quincy Adams. He
became one of the corporation of Harvard College, and
president of the Boston Mechanics' Institution. He
was admitted a member of the Royal Society of Lon-
don, the Royal Academy of Berlin, and of various
other scientific institutions, in this country and in
Europe. He was the active friend of literary, scien-
tific and charitable institutions, and especially of the
Athenoeum and Museum of his native town.

It is impossible, Avithout a detail quite beyond the
compass of this volume, to give an adequate idea of
the amount of useful labor performed by Dr. Bow-
ditch. His methodical habits, his activity, his untiring
industry, enabled him to accomplish almost incredible
results. It must be remembered that the great pro-
ductions which have given him fame throughout
Christendom were the works of his leisure hours.
In the mere fragments of his time, he has done more
than most other men of genius accomplish in their

In 1S34, Dr. Bowditch was called to endure a
heavy calamity. His amiable wife, the mother of
several children, had long been suffering from that
disease which seems to delight in blastmg the fairest
flowers. She gradually wasted away, and finally
died peacefully in the midst of her family. It was a


scene " too serene for sorrow, too beautiful for fear."
Seldom has the sad thought of the poet, that " death
loves a shining mark," been more touchingly realized.
She was a tender mother, a devoted wife, a pious
Christian, a graceful woman. Every duty which was
laid upon her was discharged, and with a serenity
and cheerfulness that shed a constant light around
her path. She appreciated the exalted character of
her husband, and found gratification in his extending
fame. It was with her consent, and partly through
her urgent counsel, that the Mechanique Celeste was
published, involving a heavy expense, and many pri-
vations to the family.

Dr. Bowditch did not long survive his amiable
partner. In January, 1S38, his health began to
decline. By slow degrees, he tranquilly descended
to the tomb. He suffered occasional pain, but his
mind was clear, and his bosom peaceful. With his
children around him, he seemed happy still. On the
26th of March, he took an affectionate leave of his
children, all of whom were gathered around his bed-
side. Soon after, he said, " Oh, sweet and pretty are
the visions that rise up before me. Now let thy ser-
vant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy
salvation." A few hours passed, a few trembling sen-
tences were uttered, and the spirit departed.

The withdrawal of such a luminary of science could
not pass unmarked. Various public notices of the
death of Dr. Bowditch took place. Dr. Young deliv-
ered a sermon upon the occasion, in which he has
drawn a lively and pleasing picture of the great man's
life. Other eulogies were pronounced. We have


chiefly derived the materials of this sketch from an
affectionate memoir drawn up by one of his sons,
and prefixed to the fourth volume of the Mechanique

The character of Dr. Bowditch has been set before
the reader by his acts. In person, he was under the
common size. His hair, originally of a light color,
was gray at twenty-one, and became silvery white in
after years. His forehead was remarkably high and
capacious ; his eye was deep-set and penetrating.
The upper portion of his countenance was stern ; but
the expression was qualified by an ineffable sweetness
about the mouth. The play of his somewhat pallid
features, wrought by the vivid intellect within, was
rapid as the sunlight upon the wave. He possessed
great bodily activity, as well as the highest mental
vigor. Late in life, he might be seen glicjing with
rapidity along the streets, with a short, rapid step,
imitating the quickness of youth. He expressed his
emotions of delight by rubbing his hands together,
and springing to his feet. His manner of speech was
impressive, and his censure was appalling. Though
he so deeply loved mathematics, he seldom made
them a topic of conversation.

He seems to have taken no delight either in logic
or natural philosophy. The pure abstractions of his
favorite science, its stern, inflexible truths, he pursued
with delight, but his mind was embarrassed with
metaphysical subtleties. The gi'eat truth of human
accountability he settled upon the instinct found
within every human bosom. Though he preferred
works which treated of matters of fact, he had still a
VI.— 26


sensibility to the beauties of poetry. It is a pleasing
/act, that, upon the leathern covers in which he kept
the proof-sheets of his Mechanique Celeste, he had
written extracts from the Cotter's Saturday Night, and
the following stanza from the Persian poet, Hafiz :

" On parent's knees, a naked, new-born child.
Weeping thou sat'st, while all around thee smiled —
So live, that, sinking in thy last, long sleep.
Calm thou may'st smile, whilst all around thee weep."

Among the poets of America, Bryant was his favor-
ite. The Old Man's Funeral, he esteemed one of the
most beautiful productions of the English language,
and he often quoted, with delight, Sprague's fine stan-
zas to the swallows that flew into church, beginning,

" Gay, guiltless pair,

What seek ye from the fields of heaven ?
Ye have no need of prayer,
' Ye have no sins to be forgiven."

He was fond of music, and, in youth, played the
flute. But he abandoned it as leading to an unprofit-
able use of time. He was rigid in abstinence from
what he deemed bad habits. For this reason, he
abstained from tobacco, and rejected cards, chess, and
the theatre. He avoided general society, but was
happy in familiar intercourse with his friends. With
his family, he was free and unreserved. No painful
restraint was imposed by his presence. With his
children, he was playful and childlike. Taking a
middle course between indulgence and severity, he
taught by precept and example the most valuable les-
sons of life, and winged their way to the heart by
conveying them in the sweetest tones of affection.


Such was Nathaniel Bowditch — certainly one of the
n^st remarkable men of his time. We, who have
st-cn him among us, can hardly appreciate the full
scope and meaning of his life. He has acquired,
among men of scicnc^, a brilliant reputation by his
mathematical papers, and especially by his translation
of the Mechanique Celeste. In every respect, this is
a stupendous work ; it not only displays the highest
mathematical talents, but when we look at the amaz-
ing extent of the calculations, the beauty and perfect-
ness of his processes, and finally consider that this
herculean performance • was but the plaything of a
busy man's life — we shall regard it as indeed one of
the most remarkable productions of human intellect.

Yet it is not for this performance that we give him
a place in these pages. If we were making an array
of men of genius, he would claim a conspicuous sta-
tion, as being the author of the great work we have
noticed. But it is rather as the author of the Prac-
tical Navigator — as the benefactor of the mariner, and
of the human race, that we wish to present him to our
readers. He has made the path of the treacherous
sea more safe ; he has gone with the lonely sailor, to
guide his course, and teach him how to shun the
sunken rock and reef, the insidious shoal, the iron
shore. He has thus preserved thousands of lives;
saved millions of property; reduced the rate of insur-
ance ; cheapened every foreign commodity. Not only
has the family whose father is upon the wave, and the
mother whose son is ploughing the deep, and the
maiden whose lover has trusted himself to the billow,
occasion to bless the name of him who has thus abated


the perils of ilie sea — but every member of the com-
munhv shares in the beiieficent fruits of" his labor.
We have no precise means to estimate- the amoinil of
good which he has thus done; indeed, operating on
so vast a scale, it surpasses any definite conception
we can form.

Nor is this alL Dr. Bowditch has left us the pre-
cious legacy of a good name. He was not only great,
but good. The example of one who has dazzled the
world by his achievements, is contagious ; even when
dead, he multiplies his image, good or evil, by the force
of that sympathy, which genius seldom fails to excite.
It has thus often happened, that great gifts, lending a
charm to vice, have been a curse rather than a benefit
to mankind. But when a great nq|an practises justice,
charity, peace, and kindness, he becomes an effective
preacher of virtue ; his light is set on a hill, and the
world will delight to walk thereby.

It is, therefore, as a great man, being good, that he
challenges admiration. It is not because he was a
great astronomer, that he claims our homage — but,
being such, that he was still a kind father, a good
neighbor, a sincere friend, a patriot, a gentleman, a
Christian. " I can hardly bear," says Dr. Frothing-
ham, "to hear him described as an astronomer, or
mathematician — though among the most illustrious
that have lived — he was so honestly, heartily, bravely,
and entirel}^ a man. There was something in him
brighter than talent, and deeper than even that pro-
found knowledge which led the way, with a modest
silence, where there were few intellects that could so
much as attend him."


!• RANCis HuBER was borii at Geneva, in Switzer-
land, on the 2d of July, 1750, of a highly respectable
family, remarkable for intelligence. His father was

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Online LibrarySamuel G. (Samuel Griswold) GoodrichLives of benefactors; → online text (page 19 of 21)