Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers by Tamara Thornton

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Just about any religious homeschooler from the late 1980s will be familiar with Carry On Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham. This children’s biography of Nathaniel Bowditch was written in the 1950s and won a Newbery medal in 1956. I gained a second lease on life in the 1980s after it was endorsed by a number of Evangelical and homeschool movement luminaries. It is not difficult to see why. The book is a paean to self directed learning, hard work, and diligence. It praised self-learning, and fit the homeschool ethic well. In this sense, it is a continuation of the legend of Nathaniel Bowditch which arose soon after his death. It fits in well with the Horatio Alger narrative of the young man who succeeds through virtue (and karma - something those who have never read Alger might not realize) and effort. The American bootstrap myth which is perhaps our own national fairy tale.

I don’t want to create a wrong impression, however. I loved and re-read Carry On Mr. Bowditch, and encouraged my kids to read it as well. It is a well written book, full of interesting incidents. It makes math sound exciting. And, unlike many books for children, it doesn’t sugar coat all the death that occurred in those times. Lots of people die of disease. Boats are lost. Tragedy is everywhere, and people just had to survive it. It’s a worthwhile book, and I have recommended it to others.

1835 portrait of Bowditch by Charles Osgood

As Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers points out, though, the kids book does take some liberties with the story. The first an exaggeration of Bowditch’s innovation - his genius was less in invention than in meticulousness - and he knew it.  The second is perhaps more problematic, which is that Latham, like other biographers of Bowditch, failed to note that Bowditch’s rise was made possible by extensive family connections. Certainly, his hard work and initiative contributed to his success. But he didn’t rise solely on his merits. At every turn, he received significant opportunities as a result of his social status. This takes nothing away from Bowditch, I’ll hasten to say. What it does is creates the impression that merit is the sole factor in success, something which was patently untrue then, and remains true now to a significant extent. As the author put it:

Bowditch was undoubtedly self-taught, but he was not not self-made...The young Bowditch’s connections made him a fit candidate for sponsored mobility, affording him opportunities, from access to the Philosophical Library to a clerkship on a Derby vessel, which would otherwise not have existed. Merit mattered, of course. Had Bentley not been impressed by the youth’s mathematical talents, had Derby not heard good reports of the boy’s work, they would not have assisted Bowditch, but nor would they have lent this kind of aid to a boy from a less than respectable family.

Also ironic is the fact that Bowditch is now given to home school kids as an example of Evangelical virtue, despite the fact that Bowditch himself had no love for Evangelicalism, being a Unitarian for strong philosophical and moral reasons.

Anyway, the real life story of Nathaniel Bowditch is fascinating in any case. Born in colonial Massachusetts, he came to prominence in the early years of the United States through his publication of The American Practical Navigator, a comprehensive - and far more accurate - set of tables for calculating longitude using lunar observations. (This is an oversimplification, but it consists of measuring the angle of the moon compared to various stars. It allowed precise calculation of position during any clear night, without need for a chronometer, a rarity in those days.)

Bowditch was born to a family that had fallen on hard times, but remained connected to two of the most prominent New England families of the time. He got an apprenticeship in trade, which later led to a shipboard position as Supercargo (basically, director of trade for a merchant vessel), eventually became a captain (despite his lack of practical sea knowledge). Later in life, he would stick to land, managing newfangled organizations by the name of Trusts. (We take them and corporations for granted these days, but they were in their infancy in the early 1800s.) He would go on to publish a well respected translation and annotation of Laplace's mathematical treatise, reform the finances of Harvard University, co-found insurance and investment companies. In all of this, the author argues, he essentially invented modern corporate practice, from careful accounting practices to form documents.

Thornton does an excellent job in telling the story, while also bringing in enough historical context to shed light on the events in Bowditch’s life.

There are a few things that were particularly interesting to me. The first was that we often have a completely erroneous view of the education of the past. Many will note that Harvard was a place you sent your teenagers. Which is true. But what is also true is that the level of education at Harvard at the time wasn’t even up to the level of our high schools today. At least academically speaking. In fact, that wasn’t even the point. The goal of college was to prepare upper class boys to act with social polish. Thus, they would study the “classics,” the Latin and Greek works that formed the cultural literacy that identified them as gentlemen. (The US may have been “class free” in theory, but in practice, well, not so much.) Bowditch, despite his best efforts, never attained this “polish,” and was thus considered uncouth, even though he was intellectually far beyond average in knowledge and quality of thought.

Particularly shocking was the lack of mathematics at Harvard. Eventually, (1787) math was added as an elective. And by “math,” I mean arithmetic - elementary school math. Later, algebra was added, but calculus failed to gain a foothold. In fact, in the English speaking world, one mathematician estimated that on a dozen people total could demonstrate proficiency in Leibniz’s version of calculus.

And America was even worse, perhaps. In what has been a refrain for the past, well, 400 years, Europeans have viewed Americans, as the author puts it, as “too boorish, too materialistic to generate or appreciate art, literature, and science.” I believe this did change in some ways. Clearly we have developed scientific proficiency - dominance in some cases. And we have literature and art, although I think many Europeans still consider us relative savages.

Very interesting to me as a lawyer was the section on the development of Trusts and the law surrounding them. Although Henry VIII can be credited with the creation of this area of law, it was fairly unregulated and nebulous in the United States until Bowditch and his associates brought the Trust into the modern age. In essence, charitable trusts were poorly managed and unregulated. To put things charitably, they were an utter mess by modern standards. Trustees routinely commingled their own funds with trust funds, didn’t keep accounts, and had no responsibility to anyone. The primary reason they were unregulated was an accident of jurisprudence, so to speak. In England, which gave us our legal system, the Courts of Equity regulated Trusts, and they were viewed with suspicion because of the way they functioned in England. (Dickens’ Bleak House was about these courts.) Equity Courts had a reputation of being “pay to play” in practice, an arena in which the powerful abused the weak. In our own time, with the merger of the courts of Law and Equity, and with predictable, just laws governing trust administration, we take for granted that the norm for trust administration is a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries. We assume the trustee will segregate funds, and seek to prudently manage and invest. Furthermore, we take for granted that beneficiaries are entitled to accountings from trustees. All of this got its start with Bowditch. He applied the same approach he did to his lunar calculations to his accountings. He insisted on rigid separation and clinical impartiality.

Another positive that Bowditch shined was in his reform of Harvard. As proof that the issues we face today aren’t as new as we often think, one of his goals was to reduce the cost of college to the students. As he said, Harvard was never meant to be “an establishment for the rich alone, but rather as a place where persons with a moderate property might have their children educated upon equal terms with the rich without being under the necessity of soliciting pecuniary aid in a manner unpleasant to their feelings.” In other words, nobody should have to sell their future to afford an education. Important words in our own time.

Also surprisingly pertinent to our own time was Bowditch’s response to the social upheaval in the early 1830s. That decade saw riots in the northern cities. Riots against immigrants (sound familiar?), Catholics - the theological bogeymen of that era (again, familiar?), African Americans (ditto), and Abolitionists (who were called...wait for it...elitists...hmm.) Bowditch had a natural love for order, and had no great love for the Catholic faith. (He was Unitarian, and experienced a lot of the most superstitious forms of Catholicism in his travels around the world.) However, he was appalled at the outpouring of “fanaticism” and hate within his own community. I sympathize.

Most interesting, however, must be the fact that Bowditch’s true legacy has slipped into obscurity, not because it failed, but because it was so wildly successful that we take it for granted.

Ironically, our memory of Bowditch’s influence on practical affairs is lost not because his innovations were soon made obsolete but because they became the norm. Filling out forms, classifying and filing documents, separating business from personal records, meeting rigid deadlines - these are so much a part of our existence that we hardly understand they have a history. We take for granted that much of what we call modern life consists of dealings with impersonal institutions. Precisely where his impact was the greatest, Bowditch is a historical cypher. But in a final reckoning of his life we need to number him among those who transformed our world.

It’s an interesting thought. One may or may not prefer the modern to the pre-modern. It’s hard to argue that either the impersonal corporation or the complex networks of patronage that worked to preserve privilege and prevent social mobility by those lower down the ladder are the best possible systems. Which one is best is perhaps best left to the philosophers.

Either way, this is an outstanding book, and the author’s research and writing are excellent. For anyone seeking to fill in a portion of our history which often gets lost between the more exciting wars on each end, this book is worthy entry.


  1. IIRC Bowditch was Nathaniel Hawthorne's second cousin.

    There's some funny "the more things change..." moments about college in Marsden's biography of Jonathan Edwards too, only in that case it's early 1700s Yale. Students behaving badly, drinking too much, staging some kind of walkout/protest because the food sucks and is too expensive. All of course scandalizing teenage Jonathan Edwards...

    1. Isn't that the truth! College students behaving badly, protesting, doing stunts. It's almost as if humans are basically the same across time...