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Post Celebrating Nathaniel Bowditch, Navigation Pioneer
Created by John Eipper on 07/22/19 4:07 AM

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Celebrating Nathaniel Bowditch, Navigation Pioneer (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy, 07/22/19 4:07 am)

A couple of days ago I got together with a group of old Captains and we spoke of the good old days and of our idols.

I have already written about Malcolm McLean, the inventor of the container ships (http://waisworld.org/go.jsp?id=02a&objectType=post&o=125045&objectTypeId=90289&topicId=160 ), and have also mentioned the T2 tankers and the cargo (and troop transporter) Liberty Ships.

Some 2710 Liberty ships were built between 1941 and 45. Their history is heroic.  The SS Stephen Hopkins was the first American ship to sink a German surface ship in a gun battle.  Another Liberty ship exploded at Chicago, resulting in 230 deaths, and another at Texas City, with 581 deaths. About 300 were lost during the war and now only three survive as floating museums.

But for most of the world's mariners, our great idol is the American Nathaniel Bowditch, who published the American Practical Navigator.  The first edition appeared in 1802.  I have the 1958 edition, already the 70th. Now there is a 2019 edition in two volumes and most probably more than one million copies have been sold around the world over the the last two centuries.

The publication in a simple manner describes in detail the principles and factors of navigation, including piloting, electronic navigation, celestial navigation (by now unfortunately becoming obsolete), safety, oceanography and meteorology. It also contains various tables with typical navigation calculations and solutions.  With the Bowditch book under your arm you have everything you need to master a ship.

Glory to Nathaniel Bowditch and his colleagues at the Hydrographic Office.

See: https://thenauticalalmanac.com/2017_Bowditch-_American_Practical_Navigator.html

JE comments:  Here's a scary image:  "Go drive that tanker, John.  There's a Bowditch in the pilot house if you have any questions."

Seriously now, we could assemble a list of the very few people who wrote THE book on a given topic.  To Bowditch, we'll add Robert (rules of order), Roget (thesaurus), and Hoyle (card games).  We cannot forget Strunk and White of course.  Others?

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  • Nathaniel Bowditch, Navigation Pioneer (Sasha Pack, USA 07/27/19 4:18 AM)
    What I don't know about navigation could fill many volumes, so I always enjoy Captain Battaglia's posts on the topic. I particularly appreciated his mention of Nathaniel Bowditch (July 22nd), because my friend and colleague Tamara Thornton recently published a biography of the great mariner and polymath of the Early American Republic.

    Tamara reports that it has been a very long time since any of the material in the "Bowditch" was actually written by Nathaniel (is the same true for Hoyle?), but adds that when she published the biography she received letters and phone calls from--and even struck up friendships with--several Coast Guard and Navy folks who revere the man. It turns out that apart from being a great mariner, Bowditch (who died in 1838) was also an innovator in the fields of what we would today call accounting and management.

    JE comments:  Here's more on Tamara Thornton (University at Buffalo) and her bio of Nathaniel Bowditch.  She has also written a history of the lost art of handwriting in America:


    Sasha Pack mentions Hoyle.  Earlier I asked WAISers to come up with examples of authors who wrote "The Book" on a given topic.  Bowditch, Hoyle, Robert are in that elite club of synecdoche writers who stand in for an entire field of knowledge.  Who else can we add?

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    • What Makes a Polymath? (Tor Guimaraes, USA 07/27/19 10:30 AM)
      The last post from Sasha Pack (July 27th) mentioned a few polymaths. According to the definition those are people knowledgeable on many subjects. That is what I have strived for all my life and never quite made it. Further, I see some interesting issues with the concept.

      For example, one issue arises because knowledge grows exponentially and by necessity becomes increasingly specialized. It therefore becomes increasingly more difficult for anyone to become a polymath.

      Another issue arises from the nature of real knowledge which has been accumulated over centuries and keeps being corrected and improved on very specific topics. Thus, a person like Aristotle must be considered one of the greatest and earliest polymath. Yet, much of his knowledge was wrong and debunked by early scientists.

      How do we account for these issues before labeling someone a polymath?

      JE comments:  Is it still possible to be a true polymath?  This question has never before appeared on the Forum.  (I've nonetheless used the label to describe several WAISers.)  Is it sufficient in our age to have expertise in two or three areas?  Still in Jefferson's day, it was possible to know everything.

      A related question for the WAISitudes:  who was the last polymath?  Google it, and several votes come up for Bertrand Russell.

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