With the sun out and the punts back out on the river, the Whipple has treated itself to a collection of five nautical items bound together – including a short mémoire by a certain Étienne Bottineau.

Extrait du Mémoire de M. Bottineau sur la Nauscopie, ou l'art de découvrir les vaisseaux et les terres à une distance considérable. 1786. With laurel printer's device.
STORE 184:46

Bottineau’s self-provided biography is short. He says that he began working on ships aged 15 (which we know to be around 1753 according to the registry of birth of Champtoceaux) as a “pilotin” (pilot trainee), eventually entering into the service of the Compagnie des Indes [French East India Company].

In 1764, the Compagnie offered him a better position in Port-Louis, Mauritius, which would leave him plenty of time to observe the sea – eventually leading to his discovery of a visible change prior to the arrival of ships, which he eventually named “nauscopie” (from naûs, ‘ship’, and skopéō, ‘to see’) and forms the whole subject of this little book.

This specific item was published in the context of Bottineau’s legal proceedings against Louis de Bonafous, Abbé de Fontenai, then author of the Journal general de France. The Abbé Fontenai [1], having heard about nauscopia, wrote a short passage about it in his newspaper, concluding with:

“Mr. Bottineau offers his discovery to the Government, and demands a reward proportional to its usefulness, once it has been verified by new experiments and by the most rigorous examinations; and it indeed has a great need of it, to not be considered outlandish, or even ridiculous.” (p. 207)

The same year, an equally popular French newspaper (Mercure de France [2]) published a letter answering Bottineau’s call for opinions regarding the possible name of his new science. The letter suggests calling it “Strabonico-Lilybée”, after Strabon who could allegedly see “de Lilybée en Sicile [now Marsala], le port de Carthage” (over 200 km, or 125 miles) and even “through walls” (p. 168).

The little we know about Bottineau’s time in France was compiled over a hundred years later by a Delauney [3], who reported that Bottineau had contacted the Secretary of State for the Navy and been put to the test over a period of 8 months. He would have made 62 predictions regarding 155 different ships throughout, only making two mistakes, and thoroughly impressing the local authorities. He was, allegedly, offered ‘10,000 livres d’argent’ (roughly £150,000 today) and an annuity of 1,200 livres (£18,000) for his secret – which Bottineau refused on the ground of wanting to present his discovery in Paris.

Printed ship with two masts

Once in Paris, He was asked to write an academic report on the question – which is much harder than it sounds, as any Whipple Library visitor will be able to tell you. The report apparently never made its way to the Secretary of State, and instead fell into the hands of journalists – with the results we already mentioned.

A transcription of a letter, published 1833 [4], would represent the only evidence of possible interest from French officials. The letter in question was allegedly written by famous politician Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793) to his friend Mr. William Daly, and indicates that he would have been interested to know more about the art of ‘nauscopie’.

The results of the legal proceedings, and the full Mémoire produced for the inquiry, remain unknown. Bottineau himself claimed that he was not looking for fame: “Born in obscurity, I feel that my greatest joy would be to never leave it” (p.6) – and it seems that he (almost) got his wish. Sometime after 1786, he left France and sank into anonymity. He apparently returned to Mauritius, where he may have taught his art to a ‘Faillafé’, who allegedly met French naval officer Jules Dumont d’Urville in 1828 [5].

Signé, Bottineau
STORE 184:46

His death date was, and remains, uncertain. The Scots Magazine announced in October 1802 that “A Mr. Botineau, the inventor of a method by which the approach of ships at sea may be discovered at a much great distance than it can be discerned […] died lately in great misery at Poncherry” [6] (p. 850), adding in that had he been sailing with the French fleet at Aboukir, maybe Nelson would not have won (in reference to the French defeat in the Battle of the Nile, 1798). The announcement may be linked to Leroy’s [7] in the Décade Philosophique the same year, in which he laments the loss of the inventor. Over 30 years later, a “P.A.L.” wrote that he had in fact met Bottineau in Mauritius, in 1832, by which point the ‘nauscope’ would have been around 96 years old [8].

It was only after he had left – and possibly even passed – that some began to seriously consider what may have allowed him to ‘sense’ the approach of ships. The Magazine Pittoresque [9] associated it to the recently explained “mirages” in 1843.

  • Figure presenting the optical illusion allowing the 'spectre' of a ship to float in the sky. With a ship sailing to the left, two spectres above it (the middle one upside down), and the eye viewing the spectres to the right.
  • Diagram of a ship's spectres in the sky.

A similar explanation was presented in Letters on Natural Magic [10], where Brewster made a short mention of nauscopia, at the end of letter VI, “Explanations of phenomena”, and attributes the talents of the “wizard beacon-keeper of the Isle of France” (p.156) to a good observation of a natural atmospheric phenomenon.

The Flying Dutchman had in all probability a similar origin, and the wizard beacon-keeper of the Isle of France, who saw in the air the vessels bound to the island long before they appeared in the offing, must have derived his power from a diligent observation of the phenomena of nature.
STORE 25:15, conclusion of the chapter on spectres

Experiments by Thomas Trood [11] for The Shipwrecked Mariner seem to support this idea of a natural phenomenon that Bottineau would have trained himself to recognise. He, however, highlights that the art itself is useless without an instrument to help with recognising the shape. He attributes some of Bottineau’s successes to the “clearness of the atmosphere” of Mauritius (p.90), suggesting that nauscopia requires specific circumstances to be used, which would render it less accurate in our cloudy European weather.

Rupert T. Gould [12], having read Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic, dedicated a chapter of his Oddities to the ‘Wizard of Mauritius’ – Bottineau himself – and the art of Nauscopie. According to Betts, the chapter captivated First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff Louis Mountbatten who requested further research on the topic, however “since Mountbatten’s assassination in 1979 […] it does not appear that the matter has yet been taken further” (p. 417). If you would like to take the matter further, please feel free to come and see this little book at the Whipple Library!

Blog post researched, written and published by Raphaëlle Goyeau, Library Assistant


STORE 184.46. Étienne Bottineau. Extrait du mémoire de M. Bottineau sur la nauscopie : ou l’art de découvrir les vaisseaux & les terres à une distance considérable. 1786.

STORE 25:15. David Brewster. Letters on natural magic : addressed to Sir Walter Scott. London: J. Murray. 1832.


[1] Louis de Bonafous de Fontenai. Affiches, announces et avis divers ou Journal general de France, n. 52, 1785.

[2] Raulin. Mercure de France, 27 aout 1785.

[3] Delauney. “La Nauscopie”, Bulletin de la Société de Géographie de Rochefort, 1897, n.1, 10-24.

[4] A.B. Becher (ed.). “Original Papers : The Art of Discovering the Representation of Ships, etc. in the Atmosphere”, in The Nautical Magazine: a journal of papers on subjects connected with maritime affairs, 1833, 138-147.

[5] J. Dumont D’Urville. Voyage de la corvette l’Astrolabe, execute par ordre du Roi pendant les années 1826-1827-1828-1829 ; histoire du voyage, tome cinquième. Paris : J.Tastu. 1833.

[6] Sands, Brymer, Murray, & Cochran. The Scots Magazine ; or general repository of literature, history, and politics, for the year M.DCCCII. Edinburgh: Alex Chapman and Co. 1802.

[7] Alphonse Leroy. “Aux rédacteurs de la Décade philosophique”, in La Décade philosophique, littéraire et politique, 34, 567-569.

[8] P.A.L. “Phenomenon of the Sun”, in Notes and Queries : a medium of intercommunication for literary men, general readers, etc, p.387. London: Published at the Office. 4th series, Vol. 8, July-December 1871.

[9] Also refers to Édouard Charton (ed.). “Explication de diverses variétés de mirage  la Nauscopie”, in Magasin [sic] Pittoresque, XIe année, 1843, p.322.

[10] David Brewster. Letters on Natural magic : addressed to Sir Walter Scott. London: J. Murray. 1832. American edition available online through the Wellcome Collection.

[11] Thomas Trood. “The Science of Nauscopia; or, far-off vision” in The Shipwrecked mariner: a quarterly maritime magazine, 1870, 82-90.

[12] Jonathan Betts. Time Restored: the Harrison timekeepers and R.T. Gould, the man who knew (almost) everything. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006.