Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Bowditch, 2 May 1815

To Nathaniel Bowditch

Monticello May 2. 15.

I thank you, Sir, for your highly scientific pamphlet on the motion of the Pendulum, and more particularly for that containing the deductions of longitudes of places in the United States, from the Solar eclipse of 1811. that of Monticello is especially acceptable, having too long lost familiarity with such operations to have undertaken it my self. mr Lambert of Washington had also favored me with his calculation, which varied minutely only from your’s; he having, from the same elements, made the Longitude of Monticello 78°–50′–18.877″ W. from Greenwich. I am happy indeed to find that this most sublime of all sciences is so eminently cultivated by you, and that our Rittenhouse was not the only meteor of the hemisphere in which he lived.

Accept the homage due to your science from one who is only a dilettante, and sincere wishes for your health & happiness.

Th: Jefferson

RC (MBPLi: Bowditch Collection); at foot of text: “MrNathaniel Bowditch. Salem.” PoC (DLC); on verso of reused address cover of Horatio G. Spafford to TJ, 6 Apr. 1815; endorsed by TJ.

Nathaniel Bowditch (1773–1838), astronomer, was a native of Salem, Massachusetts. He worked as a clerk in a ship-chandlery as an adolescent and took part in five lengthy sea voyages, 1795–1803, the last as master and supercargo. In 1804 Bowditch entered the business world, first as a fire and marine insurer in his native town and, from 1823, as actuary of the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company in Boston. He succeeded in these endeavors, but he made his biggest contribution as an independent scholar. Largely self-taught, Bowditch became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1799, published twenty-three papers in its Memoirs between 1804 and 1820, and served as its president from 1829 until his death. He also published in other journals, both in America and abroad. The subjects addressed ranged widely, from an 1807 meteor explosion in Connecticut to the movement of comets and motion of the pendulum. However, Bowditch is best known for his New American Practical Navigator (Newburyport, Mass., 1802, and many other editions) and his translation with extensive commentary, 1829–39, of the first four volumes of Pierre Simon Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1809 and the Royal Society of London in 1818. Having rejected an earlier faculty appointment at Harvard University, in the latter year Bowditch turned down TJ’s offer of the professorship of mathematics at the University of Virginia. He died in Boston (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; DSB description begins Charles C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 1970–80, 16 vols. description ends ; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Minutes, 21 Apr. 1809 [MS in PPAmP]; Henry A. S. Dearborn to TJ, 14 Oct. 1811, and enclosure; TJ to Bowditch, 26 Oct. 1818; Bowditch to TJ, 4 Nov. 1818; Boston Daily Advertiser, 17 Mar. 1838; Salem Gazette, 20 Mar. 1838).

Both of Bowditch’s highly scientific works, “On the Eclipse of the Sun of Sept. 17, 1811, with the longitudes of several places in this country, deduced from all the observations of the Eclipses of the Sun and Transits of Mercury and Venus” and “On the Motion of a Pendulum Suspended from Two Points,” are printed in American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Memoirs, vol. 3, pt. 2 (1815): 255–304, 413–36. Bowditch concluded on pp. 268–9 of the former, on the basis of the solar eclipse of 1811, that Monticello’s longitude was “78° 47′ 36″ W from Greenwich.” William Lambert sent TJ his calculation of its longitude in a letter dated 8 Jan. 1812.

Index Entries

  • astronomy; and calculations of Monticello’s longitude search
  • Bowditch, Nathaniel; identified search
  • Bowditch, Nathaniel; letter to search
  • Bowditch, Nathaniel; On the Eclipse of the Sun of Sept. 17, 1811 search
  • Bowditch, Nathaniel; On the Motion of a Pendulum search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; works sent to search
  • Lambert, William; calculates Monticello’s longitude search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); longitude of search
  • On the Eclipse of the Sun of Sept. 17, 1811 (N. Bowditch) search
  • On the Motion of a Pendulum (N. Bowditch) search
  • Rittenhouse, David; TJ on search