- Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life by Tamara Plakins Thornton
Numbers are so frequently called impersonal (and crueler words, like "dry") that it is worth recovering a personality founded on a passion for them. While interest in the cultural history of capitalism has sent historians burrowing into the accounting systems and everyday calculating practices of early Americans, the work of named individuals has faded into the background, as Jean-Christophe Agnew has observed. Tamara Plakins Thornton's new biography addresses this gap, examining the life of Nathaniel Bowditch, the most famous mathematician of the early United States. Thornton reveals a man whose career united navigation, business practice, and transatlantic natural science. Tracing it, she both illuminates these cultures of practice and shows how Bowditch himself shaped them.
Thornton interleaves accounts of Bowditch's activities in three spheres. Tracing the earliest part of his career, she illuminates the rise of "mathematical practitioners," largely self-taught men, who developed their skills in response to shifts in American trade after the Revolution. With colonial connections severed and new contacts promised by the neutral shipping boom, the merchants and mariners of Bowditch's Salem developed new networks in new seas, particularly in the Indian Ocean, where old, informal accounting and navigational methods would no longer serve. On voyages to Spain, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Reunion, Bowditch learned to deal with strangers and use the calculating tables and practical astronomical calculations that allowed travel out of the familiar Atlantic but also began work on Bowditch's Practical Navigator, (1802) soon known as the "seaman's bible," which offered a simpler method for telling the time using the position of the moon and corrected hundreds of small, life-threatening errors that marred previous navigational tables. At a moment when feats of mental arithmetic had become a popular recreation and sign of genius, the Navigator made Bowditch a patriotic icon.
In the same period, Bowditch started to move toward the wider, more rarefied audience of the Republic of Letters. He began by making precise astronomical observations of comets and solar eclipses, a standard way for provincial scientists to make metropolitan contacts. Eventually, however, he embarked on a more consequential task: the first English translation of Pierre-Simon Laplace's Mécanique Céleste (1799–1805). This massive work, widely hailed in its time as the completion of Newton's physics, produced a mathematically consistent picture of a balanced, self-correcting, and clocklike universe. To translate it, Bowditch would master multiple new forms of mathematics and physics in Latin, French, and German, a lifetime's work that, by the 1830s, brought him into the elite mathematical circles that he craved.
Bowditch's negotiation of the cultures of mathematics gives a rich picture of learned life in the early republic. But his work in a third sphere, daily business practice, probably influenced more people. Returning from his voyages, he embarked on a career in insurance and finance, eventually gaining control of the [End Page 633] enormous Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company, which issued rural mortgages, operated trusts and annuities, and was commonly known as the "Life Office." (Critics protesting its mortgages called it "a great beast of prey.") Within a few years, it operated under new principles as the "Bowditch Office." An elaborate system of accounts, by-laws, and ferociously pursued debts replaced more haphazard and personalized methods for managing and expanding the fortunes of Boston's elite, a pattern Bowditch would force on other corporations central to elite Bostonian life—Harvard, the Boston Athenaeum, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Thornton is committed to showing Bowditch's wholeness. She demonstrates that a man so committed to mathematical astronomy that he rewarded his children's good behavior by inking constellations onto their arms was driven by the same impulses when he created durable administrative structures. Bowditch's reputation as...