Nathaniel Bowditch

American astronomer and mathematician who founded modern navigation (1773-1838)

Nathaniel Bowditch (26 March 1773 – 16 March 1838) was an early American mathematician remembered for his work on ocean navigation. He is often credited as the founder of modern maritime navigation; his book The New American Practical Navigator, first published in 1802, is still carried on board every commissioned U.S. Naval vessel. In 2001, an elementary and middle school in Salem was named in his honor.

Nathaniel Bowditch in 1835
Frontispiece of the first edition of The American Practical Navigator (1802)


  • Marine navigation blends both science and art. A good navigator constantly thinks strategically, operationally, and tactically. He plans each voyage carefully. As it proceeds, he gathers navigational information from a variety of sources, evaluates this information, and determines his ship’s position. He then compares that position with his voyage plan, his operational commitments, and his predetermined “dead reckoning” position. A good navigator anticipates dangerous situations well before they arise, and always stays “ahead of the vessel.” He is ready for navigational emergencies at any time. He is increasingly a manager of a variety of resources--electronic, mechanical, and human. Navigation methods and techniques vary with the type of vessel, the conditions, and the navigator’s experience. The navigator uses the methods and techniques best suited to the vessel, its equipment, and conditions at hand. Some important elements of successful navigation cannot be acquired from any book or instructor. The science of navigation can be taught, but the art of navigation must be developed from experience.
    • The American Practical Navigator, Chapter. I, p. 1
  • The Earth is an irregular oblate spheroid (a sphere flattened at the poles). Measurements of its dimensions and the amount of its flattening are subjects of geodesy. However, for most navigational purposes, assuming a spherical Earth introduces insignificant error. The Earth’s axis of rotation is the line connecting the north and south geographic poles.
    A great circle is the line of intersection of a sphere and a plane through its center. This is the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere. The shortest line on the surface of a sphere between two points on the surface is part of a great circle. On the spheroidal Earth the shortest line is called a geodesic. A great circle is a near enough approximation to a geodesic for most problems of navigation.
    • The American Practical Navigator, Chapter. I, p. 3-4
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  • The American Practical Navigator, by the United States government, 2002