Tamara Plakins Thornton: The Origins of Our “Numerical Neurosis”: Numbering Systems in American Life

Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life, by Tamara Plakins ThorntonWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Tamara Plakins Thornton, author of Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life. In this engagingly written biography, 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. 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.

In today’s post, Thornton recalls a world without Social Security numbers, ISBNs, and zip codes. Nathaniel Bowditch viewed this world and its existing organization systems as haphazard and offered a mathematician’s solution: numbers.


April 15: yet another occasion to provide your Social Security number. It’s just one of many numbers we use to identify ourselves, along with those found on our driver’s licenses, passports, and military ID’s. Being a number instead of a name has become a cliché, but the use of such numbers goes beyond reducing personal identity to a set of numerals. It’s part of a larger world of numbering systems that order people and things alike.

Take books. Since the late 1960s, every newly published volume has been assigned an International Standard Book Number. As it makes its way into libraries, the book is marked with a Library of Congress Classification or a Dewey Decimal System number, and placed on a correspondingly numbered shelf.

It wasn’t always so, and libraries are a good place to find traces of that lost world. Well into the nineteenth century, there were no card catalogs or call numbers. At Harvard, a bound volume listed holdings by author. Within the library, books were arranged by donor. It was all far too haphazard for Nathaniel Bowditch, the early republic’s premier mathematician, author of a best-selling navigation manual, and a Boston business executive known for his habits of “order, exactitude, and method.”

Once he became a member of Harvard’s governing body, in 1826, Bowditch set about systematizing library affairs, turning instinctively to numbers to do the job. Down came the order to have Harvard’s books “classified and arranged in the Library; and numbered with reference to their places on the shelves.”

Simultaneously, at the gentlemanly Boston Athenaeum, Bowditch encountered the problem of missing and mutilated books, and no means of keeping track of the collections. He soon had every library shelf assigned a number and every book penciled with its numerical location. Next came a document listing the contents of every numbered shelf, and finally a new “scientific Catalogue,” with printed numbers next to each entry indicating shelf placement.

Numbering systems were Bowditch’s calling card. There it is in 1820, when he organized the ethnographic and natural history collections of Salem’s East India Marine Society, today’s Peabody Essex Museum. The museum’s holdings had been “in a perishing condition,” he reported, a higgledy-piggledy of unrelated artifacts “without any marks by which they could be identified.” But now, “new numbers have been painted upon most of the articles,” and a “catalogue corresponding to the numbers” was forthcoming.

In the following decade, the introduction of a numerical grading system at Harvard, the so-called Scale of Comparative Merit, bears Bowditch’s tell-tale imprint. And he brought the same numerating ways to his work at a Boston financial institution. There he numbered every mortgage loan, required that his agents refer to each loan by number, and, in an early organizational system—file folders and cabinets were decades away—insisted that documents be bundled together accordingly.

Bowditch’s simultaneous career as a man of science and a man of business gives us a clue as to what set these numbering systems into motion. He was strategically placed to be inspired by the numerical techniques practiced in both worlds. As a boy, Bowditch studied both navigation and bookkeeping. As a man, he produced tables of astronomical positions and interest payments alike. For him, numbers—and the system they brought—provided the solution to every species of real-world problems.

In his day, Bowditch’s contemporaries celebrated his numerating, systematizing ways as bringing a mathematician’s sense of order to practical affairs. But in the twentieth century, as numbering systems moved from things to people, they could evoke suspicion and resentment, even when individual identity was not at stake. When zip codes were introduced in 1963, some newspapers condemned them as “numerical neurosis” and “the ultimate in regimentation.” To which Bowditch would likely have replied: and the problem is . . . what, exactly?

Tamara Plakins Thornton is professor of history at the State University of New York, Buffalo. Her book Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life is now available.