Wednesday, November 21, 2012

FTV 11/21/2012 Nathaniel Bowditch: Master of Math and Astronomy

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Have you ever been tempted to give up because a task was difficult or seemed just impossible to do? Instead of getting frustrated, think about the life of Nathaniel Bowditch, a famous nineteenth century mathematician and navigator. When he met an obstacle in his life, he learned to “sail by an ash breeze,” a shipping term that referred to using the oars for power when there was no wind to move the ship. For Nathaniel Bowditch this meant not allowing obstacles to keep him from pursuing his dreams. 

Imagine "seeing" numbers in your sleeping hours as well as your waking hours.  Nathaniel Bowditch lived numbers.  When he was very young he would lay in his bed and think about a "good luck spell" for his family.  "Why does my family have so much bad luck", he would wonder?  "Was it because my Father had lost his ship?  Or was it because of the war?"  Ever since Nat could remember the war had been going on.  How long had it been?  He counted back on his fingers to 1775.  Four years since the war started.  He was four from six then.  He'd counted up how old everybody had been.  Mary was four from thirteen, Hab was four from eleven, Lizza was four from eight, and William was four from three...well he wasn't" 1.   Even though he was born four from two years without war in his life, he had been too young to remember. He would continue to live his life with numbers.
Nathaniel Bowditch was an astronomer, mathematician, and revisor of navigation.  He was born on March 26, 1773 in Salem, Massachusetts.  He had 6 siblings and a shipmaster as a father.  His family usually experienced hunger because of his dad's low paying job. When Nathaniel was 12 he became indentured to the town ship-chandlers. His dream of continuing his schooling was halted, yet he continued to educate himself.  He sold ship supplies and reviewed logs and ledgers.  When he was 14 he constructed an Almanac of Algebra.
At age 21, he hired on as a recorder and second mate.  This would be his first adventure out to sea.  While at sea, the sailors relied on John Moore's  The Practical Book of Navigation.  Nathaniel's mathematical intelligence sited many errors which made it unpractical and dangerous for sailors to travel by.  Bowditch taught his shipmates the skill of  "lead, log and look-out," which allowed them to learn the calculations necessary to navigate their voyage.  This act of kindness, offered sailors the oppotunity to better themselves with knowledge and sailing skills.
By the 1800's  he had found 8,000 errors in John Moore's book  Anybody that was good at lunar distances could see the errors recorded in this book.  Nataniel Bowditch agreed to help correct the book and later wrote a new book called The New Pratical Book of Navigation.  Now The New American Practical Navigator made travel easier and safer. Nine editions of this book were published in Bowditch's lifetime.
Havard University awarded him with an honorary "Master of Arts" degree. (Even though he didn't formally attend college.)  Two years later they made him Doctor of Laws.  In 1804 he retired from shipping and became the president of Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company.  He held this position until 1832.  After that he became actuary of the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company.  He died at the age of 65 in his home town.

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Learn more about Latitude and Longitude    

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        Find the North Star
        How to Build a Sextant
        Measuring Latitude 
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