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Nathaniel Bowditch, Pioneer in Quest for Navigation Accuracy

Bowditch's 250th Birthday Marks Centuries of Navigation Legacy

Nathaniel Bowditch, the father of Navigation

Nathaniel Bowditch would have been 250 on March 26. Often referred to as the father of navigation, he was an early American pioneer in the maritime industry and is the author of one of the most well-known maritime books in history, “The American Practical Navigator.” In 1802, Bowditch published the first edition of the book, which updated over 11,000 errors in the British version and became the shipping industry standard for the western hemisphere.

Bowditch’s five trips at sea over nine years endowed him with proven and practical advice included in his work. He also vowed to only put items in the new guide that every crew member could learn for practicality. The American guide launched mariners into the modern navigational age and eventually evolved into “Sailing Directions,” National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's current publication.

NGA and its predecessor agencies have produced "Sailing Directions" and similar publications since at least 1867, when the Hydrographic Office of the U.S. Navy purchased the copyright and plates to Bowditch’s original work. Today’s mariner knows this book as the one that aided them in passing the U.S. Coast Guard exam. And most sailors today are familiar with the Bowditch knot. 

Cody Busby, a quartermaster petty officer second class, who works in NGA’s maritime safety office, emphasized that although modern navigation technology has surpassed Bowditch’s meticulously researched manual from the early 1800s, “The American Practical Navigator” still has its value. 

“Bowditch provides critical insight and precise instructions to the core fundamentals of navigation that make safely transiting the world’s oceans possible,” Busby said. “The modern era of technology-driven navigation techniques leaves today's sailors at a disadvantage should that technology be rendered unusable.”

Busby said that in his experience, the use of Bowditch tide tables to establish ebb and flow conditions is critical for entering or exiting the port when NOAA data is unavailable. He added that following exact instructions in the Bowditch manual on how to shoot sun and moon lines can establish a position at sea when digital GPS sensors fail. 

“Both are real-life situations that required us as a navigation team to utilize Bowditch to achieve the success of the mission at hand,” he said. “Bowditch is a critical publication that when utilized can provide a vital skill set to navigators the world over.”

Bowditch passed away in 1838, leaving a legacy of valuable knowledge in mathematics, navigation, and celestial observations. That legacy, supported by “The Practical Navigator" continues to guide mariners with safe passage around the world today.

To read other articles on Nathaniel Bowditch, click here.