Save 40% on UNC Press books during our American History SALE! See details.

Save 40% on UNC Press books during our American History SALE! See details.

Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers

How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life

By Tamara Plakins Thornton

416 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 19 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-2693-2
    Published: April 2016
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-2694-9
    Published: February 2016

Buy this Book

For Professors:
Free E-Exam Copies

Awards & distinctions

2017 Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize, Massachusetts Historical Society

2016 John Lyman Book Award, North American Society for Oceanic History

Finalist, New England Society Book Awards, New England Society in the City of New York

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.

About the Author

Tamara Plakins Thornton is professor of history at the State University of New York, Buffalo.
For more information about Tamara Plakins Thornton, visit the Author Page.


“This recommended biography rediscovers an eccentric who was key in improving several emerging industries. Readers of early American history will find a rich story that moves between New England high society and the founding of the natural sciences.”--Library Journal

“Shows Nathaniel Bowditch as [a] business innovator. . . . [and] is a portrait of Salem during its golden age.”--Salem News

“The work is insightful in the manner in which it connects Bowditch’s life and work to the rise of bureaucracy and capitalism in the US. . . . It deserves a presence in all libraries. Recommended.”--Choice

“A far more sophisticated account of a diverse career than has been available previously, offering a more plausible account of a man driven by number and showing how this played out in different spheres.”--Mariner’s Mirror

“Strongly recommended [for] anyone with an interest in the history of early America and the history of navigation and science in the early nineteenth century. . . . An excellent biography.”--NavList

“Sheds a striking light on the science and activities of the early United States, and therefore is an important contribution to our historical understanding.”--Nautical Numbers