Like I said yesterday, I was excited to find this word. I don't love it necessarily because of the definition, but because of the story behind it. First of all, "nauscopy" is defined in Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary as such: "n. -- the alleged ability to spot land or ships at sea from far away." Now, the history.
Bottineau's private life was as mysterious as his talent. We do not even know his first name, but he was born somewhere in France around 1740. [Joe's note: Etienne Bottineau was born in Champtoceaux in 1739.] In 1762, after signing on as a sailor "in an inferior situation" in the French navy, it occurred to him that "a vessel approaching land must produce a certain effect on the atmosphere, and cause the approach to be discovered by a practiced eye even before the vessel itself was visible."
In 1764 his job took him to the Ile de France (now Mauritius), and he found himself with considerable free time to investigate his theory more thoroughly. The conditions on the island were ideal for his purpose. Due to a clear sky, a pure atmosphere, and fewer passing vessels than along the coast of France, there was less chance of error. After six months of intensive experimentation, he found the secret of seeing beyond the horizon and called his science nauscopy.
At first Bottineau used his newly developed skill to acquire considerable sums of money by betting the other crew members that he could predict the arrival of one or more vessels and also name the day those vessels would appear. He refined his talent to such a degree that he could accurately "see" a ship three sailing days away beyond the horizon. Because of his uncanny success, he soon had trouble finding someone who would gamble with him, but he did gain a considerable reputation for having astounding vision.
He made no secret of how he discovered ships when they were still below the horizon. He could "see" the effect their movement had on the atmosphere. He reasoned quite logically that all movement by an object must disturb the air and leave telltale fingerprints in the sky. What he had done was learn how to detect and interpret them with the naked eye. Unfortunately, he did not teach his technique to others.
Between 1778 and 1782, Bottineau correctly forecast the arrival of 575 ships to the island; some of them he predicted as much as four days before they actually were sighted. Occasionally, it was thought that he had lost his skill when ships he said would be arriving failed to turn up. Invariably, it was found that at the last moment the ships had changed course and gone to another port.
On May 15, 1782, the minister of marine instructed the governor of the Ile de France to record Bottineau's predictions of ship arrivals in a register. For two years Bottineau successfully sighted ships two or three days before they arrived in port, and all this was recorded. At the end of the experiment, he was offered a lump sum of 10,000 livres and a pension of 1,200 livres a year for life in exchange for his secret. He rejected the offer.
The full military application of his mysterious talent was first recognized when he informed the governor of the approach of 11 foreign vessels. In the uneasy political climate of the day, the governor dispatched a warship as a lookout, but after it left, Bottineau observed that the atmosphere had changed; it was therefore obvious that the foreign fleet had set course for another destination. On its return, the French warship confirmed Bottineau's theory.
Bottineau was convinced that he had discovered a real science that would do "honor to the 18th century." He said that although he had discovered a science known to no one else, it was not difficult to learn, and it would not take him very long to teach aspiring nauscopists the techniques of his art. As a loyal patriot, he decided to return to France with his discovery. When he announced his intention, the entire island applauded his decision, and he was given several highly enthusiastic references by respected islanders. The governor's letter said, "However incredible this discovery may appear... we cannot treat him as an impostor, or as a visionary. We have had ocular demonstrations for so many years (15) and in no instance has any vessel reached the island, the approach of which he has not predicted...."
During his voyage back to France, Bottineau became the captain's most reliable lookout; he correctly announced the approach of 27 vessels. The sea journey also proved to him that his theories worked equally well from sea to land, and on several occasions he informed the captain that the ship was either too close to or too far from the coast.
On June 13, 1784, Bottineau landed in France and went straight to Paris to request an audience with the minister of marine. But like most men ahead of their times, he was met with crushing civil-service indifference. After weeks of pressing for a hearing, the only acknowledgment that he received was a curt letter from the minister of marine saying his offer had been taken under consideration. When, finally, his offer to share his discovery did receive a brief review, the Abbe Fontenay, editor of the Mercure de France--without even looking at the countless testimonials Bottineau presented--ridiculed nauscopy, saying that Bottineau's vessels were not "ships at sea but castles in the air."
Bottineau had long been ignored, then finally rejected. Now he disappeared from sight, and just before the French Revolution, in June, 1789, The Scots Magazine wrote that "A Monsieur Bottineau, the inventor of a method by which the approach of ships at sea may be discovered... died lately in great misery at Pondicherry." However, revolutionary leader Jean Paul Marat considered Bottineau's death sufficiently interesting to mention it briefly in a letter to a friend.
Postscript. On Mauritius, as late as 1818, there lived an old man who claimed he had learned the art of nauscopy from Bottineau. This disciple continued to impress British seamen with his unvarying success at predicting the arrival of ships. Another report, in 1935, claimed that a man named Peter Green, of the island of Tristan da Cunha, had also developed Bottineau's mysterious talent. (David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace, The People's Alamanc, Doubleday, 1975)