The Naval Observatory library in Washington, D.C., is unnaturally quiet. It is a large circular room, filled with thousands of books. Its acoustics are perfect; a mere whisper from the room’s open circular balcony can be easily heard by those standing on the ground floor. A fountain in the center of the ground floor softly breaks the room’s silence as its water stream gently splashes into a small pool. From this serene room, a library clerk will lead you into an antechamber, beyond which is a vault containing the Observatory’s most rare books. In this vault, one can find an original 1802 first edition of the New American Practical Navigator.
One cannot hold this small, delicate, slipcovered book without being impressed by the nearly 200-year unbroken chain of publication that it has enjoyed. It sailed on U.S. merchantmen and Navy ships shortly after the quasi-war with France and during British impressment of merchant seamen that led to the War of 1812. It sailed on U.S. Naval vessels during operations against Mexico in the 1840’s, on ships of both the Union and Confederate fleets during the Civil War, and with the U.S. Navy in Cuba in 1898. It went around the world with the Great White Fleet, across the North Atlantic to Europe during both World Wars, to Asia during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and to the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm. It has circled the globe with countless thousands of merchant ships for 200 years.
As navigational requirements and procedures have changed throughout the years, Bowditch has changed with them. Originally devoted almost exclusively to celestial navigation, it now also covers a host of modern topics. It is as practical today as it was when Nathaniel Bowditch, master of the Putnam, gathered the crew on deck and taught them the mathematics involved in calculating lunar distances. It is that practicality that has been the publication’s greatest strength, and that makes the publication as useful today as it was in the age of sail. Seafarers have long memories. In no other profession is tradition more closely guarded. Even the oldest and most cynical acknowledge the special bond that connects those who have made their livelihood plying the sea. This bond is not comprised of a single strand; rather, it is a rich and varied tapestry that stretches from the present back to the birth of our nation and its seafaring culture. As this book is a part of that tapestry, it should not be lightly regarded; rather, it should be preserved, as much for its historical importance as for its practical utility.
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