Tamara Plakins Thornton
Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers
How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life
University of North Carolina Press 2016
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in BiographyNew Books in EconomicsNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Intellectual HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network August 27, 2017 Mark Klobas
To remember Nathaniel Bowditch today primarily for his famous navigational textbook is to acknowledge only one of his many achievements. As Tamara Plakins Thornton demonstrates in her book Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), Bowditch’s legacy is one that endures in a surprising range of fields. The son of a luckless merchant captain, Bowditch grew up in the early years of the new republic. At an early age he was apprenticed at a young age to a ship’s chandler, which introduced him to the world of maritime commerce. His aptitude for mathematics led him to identify numerous errors in the standard navigational text he used while on commercial voyages, and his revisions established the book colloquially known by his name today. Yet this was only at the beginning of a long and prosperous career in business, as he moved from commerce to insurance and banking. As Thornton explains, Bowditch’s mathematically-honed passion for order and precision was employed to systematize traditionally irregular business practices in ways that are reflected in the modern workplace, while his use of trusts to preserve family fortunes ensured the perpetuation of an entire New England social class. Such was his success that Bowditch became one of the Brahmin elite of nineteenth-century Boston society, while his achievements in mathematics and astronomy helped to make him a national icon by the time of his death.