Abstract: Nathaniel Bowditch (F.R.S.) and the Science of Business in Antebellum Boston

Tamara Plakins Thornton


The prominence of Nathaniel Bowditch in Boston's elite financial circles raises questions about the links between business and science in the antebellum era. When he assumed the helm of the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company in 1823, Bowditch had significant credentials in commerce and insurance, but he was better known for his New American Practical Navigator and as a mathematician and astronomer elected to England's Royal Society. It was this scientific background that most appealed to the Boston elite, for the habits of exactitude and regularity it entailed and the vision of a clockwork universe of business it inspired. Bowditch kept detailed account books, standardized office procedures, insisted on punctuality in loan payments, and treated the rules according to which business was conducted as inviolable laws. Such novel practices provoked unease among rural debtors and even some Boston capitalists. But Bowditch's vision of business as an impersonal machine suggested even-handedness, an attractive notion to those whose business relations extended to men and women commanding substantially less economic power. More important, given the realities of antebellum business—risk, booms and busts, gaps in information—the Newtonian scientist as businessman offered reassurance that the world of business was predictable, ordered, and benign.