The New American Practical Navigator: Being an Epitome of Navigation
First published in 1802, Nathaniel Bowditch’s book, The New American Practical Navigator, was a standard navigation text on board ships by 1812. In addition to correcting errors in a similar, previous work, Bowditch’s new book earned its popularity by explaining navigation concepts through extended practical examples that could be understood by mariners with rudimentary education.
Bowditch was born on March 26, 1773 in Salem, Massachusetts. His formal education ended at age 10 when he went to work in his father’s cooperage making barrels and casks. Two years later he apprenticed in a Salem ship chandlery shop selling supplies and equipment for ships.
In 1795, Bowditch went to sea. During several long voyages, he occupied his free time by studying navigation tables found in John Hamilton Moore’s book, The New Practical Navigator, a British text and the most widely used navigational guide at the time. During his studies, however, Bowditch discovered numerous errors in the tables. Perhaps motivated by personal tragedy (two of Bowditch’s brothers died at sea, and his father and great-grandfather lost ships at sea), Bowditch worked to revise Moore’s book. He contacted the book’s American publisher, Edmund M. Blunt, with his edits and a revised edition was printed in 1799. Bowditch continued his examination of Moore’s original work, and by 1802 he had identified over 8,000 mistakes. He decided to author an entirely new work, titled The New American Practical Navigator, which was published by Blunt that same year. Bowditch began a successful insurance business in 1804, and a year later he published a navigational map of Massachusetts’ harbors of Beverly, Salem, Marblehead, and Manchester. He died in 1838.
The United States government purchased the rights to The New American Practical Navigator in 1867. The title was changed to American Practical Navigator in 1880, and the edition published that year omitted much of Bowditch’s original text. New editions are published to this day, though advances in technology have resulted in drastic changes to the content over time. Nonetheless, “Bowditch,” as the text is often called, remains one of the most respected navigational guides available.