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

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6393-7
    Published: February 2021
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-2693-2
    Published: April 2016
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-2694-9
    Published: February 2016
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4962-5
    Published: February 2016

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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.


“A superb biography . . . vivid, sometimes witty, prose . . . a deft, deeply informed account.”--Thornton’s “thoroughly researched, gracefully written study locates him [Bowditch] in the several historical contexts to which he belonged: New England society and culture, business management, and science . . . a major contribution to our understanding of the early republic”--Richard D. Brown, New England Quarterly

“Much more than a well-researched and engaging biography”—Thornton “shows how Bowditch’s insistence on arithmetic order . . . a new spirit of numbers . . . contributed to a sea change in American life.”--Theodore M. Porter, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"A remarkable book . . . a real pleasure to read. . . . Thornton writes beautifully and uncomplicatedly about subjects that are neither beautiful nor uncomplicated. She breathes life and excitement into ledger books, forms, and actuarial tables and paints vivid portraits of corporate board meetings. . . . a scholarly biography of Bowditch that is deeply engaged with the historiography of American capitalism”--A “great achievement”--Gautham Rao, American Historical Review

“An enormously learned book about an intellectually challenging subject . . . [bringing] Bowditch to life in order to show us something about the power of numbers to regulate the world—a power that we now know so well we forget it was not always so.”—John Lauritz Larson, Reviews in American History

“[Thornton] describes in an enjoyable way the lifestyle and society of Salem, at that time a wealthy port town, second only to Boston in New England.”--International Journal of Maritime History

“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