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Since 1802, Sailors Have Used One Man’s Navigation Manual


(Image: US Coast Guard)

As a child, Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) of Salem, Massachusetts was a prodigy in multiple subjects. He taught himself Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, and French. At the age of 16, he found an error in Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia. He surveyed his hometown and designed his own barometer.

At the age of 21, Bowditch went to sea and put his fantastic mind to work at the task of celestial navigation. He was so superbly skilled at determining the precise location of his ships that he literally rewrote the book on the subject. The classic text The Practical Navigator became The New American Practical Navigator.


(Photo: Daderot)

Bowditch’s 1802 book became the seminal text on celestial navigation. US Naval Academy cadets still learn from an updated version of it. Atlas Obscura describes the long history of a book now known simply as Bowditch after its author:

“Bowditch is the Gray's Anatomy for navigation,” says Gerard Clifford, a marine safety office at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. “I went to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and when my section all lined up at the bookstore, we got bombarded with books. By far the heaviest and largest book we received was Bowditch."

Clifford has a picture he keeps, of a officer re-enlisting in the navy. In the ceremony, the officer has a choice of swearing his oath on a Bible or other meaningful tome. “He has his hand on a copy of Bowditch." […]

"The U.S. Navy had dropped celestial navigation from their curriculum, but they've reintroduced that now," he says." They understand that you have to have that capability as a back up and to confirm electronic navigation."

Mariners, even in the 21st century, still need to know what they're seeing if they look up at the stars.


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