Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life

Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life

Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life

Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life

Synopsis

In this engagingly written biography, Tamara Plakins Thornton delves into the life and work of Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838), a man Thomas Jefferson once called a “meteor in the hemisphere.” Bowditch was a mathematician, astronomer, navigator, seafarer, and business executive whose Enlightenment-inspired perspectives shaped nineteenth-century capitalism while transforming American life more broadly. Enthralled with the precision and certainty of numbers and the unerring regularity of the physical universe, Bowditch operated and represented some of New England's most powerful institutions—from financial corporations to Harvard College—as clockwork mechanisms. By examining Bowditch’s pathbreaking approaches to institutions, as well as the political and social controversies they provoked, Thornton’s biography sheds new light on the rise of capitalism, American science, and social elites in the early republic. Fleshing out the multiple careers of Nathaniel Bowditch, this book is at once a lively biography, a window into the birth of bureaucracy, and a portrait of patrician life, giving us a broader, more-nuanced understanding of how powerful capitalists operated during this era and how the emerging quantitative sciences shaped the modern experience.

Excerpt

In his own day, Nathaniel Bowditch needed no introduction. From the dawn of the nineteenth century to his death in 1838, he was America’s foremost astronomer and mathematician. Thomas Jefferson praised him as a “meteor of the hemisphere” in which he lived. James Madison paid homage to his “distinguished genius.” His countrymen compared him to Benjamin Franklin and even Isaac Newton, and his name became synonymous with brilliance, not unlike Einstein’s is today. Even the juvenile readers of the Youth’s Gazette could be expected to understand just how difficult a calculation must be that “would have puzzled Mr. Bowditch himself.” In fact, Bowditch did make a lasting impact as a man of science, but not in the ways we might assume. The work for which he is best remembered, his New American Practical Navigator of 1802, soon became the standard how-to guide for America’s commercial and naval vessels, but though it was filled with tables of calculated figures, there was nothing cutting-edge about its contents. His purely scientific publications lacked originality and enduring significance. But when he brought his mathematician’s sensibility to America’s business, academic, and cultural institutions, he transformed the world of practical affairs. Insistent on order and exactitude, he instituted new systems to organize information and manage office work. Stirred by the unerring regularity of the physical universe, he put forward a vision of the corporation as a clockwork mechanism. If we want to understand the origins of that touchstone of modern life, that cornerstone of modern capitalism—the impersonal bureaucracy—then we must look to Bowditch. He will point us to the role of quantitative science in transforming American life.

Impersonal procedures and institutions are so much a part of our lives that it is hard to recognize that people used to go about their affairs in a different way. Yet something as simple as a printed blank form was long a rarity. Ship’s logs mixed nautical information with personal commentary. Loan requests were little more than handwritten letters—if they were written down at all. Institutional record keeping varied with the predilections of the compilers. Enter Bowditch. In Salem, Massachusetts, he distributed printed logbook forms to his fellow ship’s officers. In Boston, he insisted his company’s potential borrowers fill out printed mortgage applications. In . . .

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