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David Rittenhouse

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David Rittenhouse
A 1796 portrait of Rittenhouse
Born(1732-04-08)April 8, 1732
DiedJune 26, 1796(1796-06-26) (aged 64)

David Rittenhouse (April 8, 1732 – June 26, 1796) was an American astronomer, inventor, clockmaker, mathematician, surveyor, scientific instrument craftsman, and public official. Rittenhouse was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the first director of the United States Mint.

Early life and education[edit]

Rittenhouse's home as it appeared in c. 1919; from this lawn, in 1769, Rittenhouse observed the transit of Venus.
Valley Forge Medical Center and Hospital

Rittenhouse was born on April 8, 1732,[1] in Rittenhousetown, in Germantown, along Paper Mill Run, a small tributary of the Wissahickon Creek. His great-grandfather, who was born in the Rhineland, emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1688.[2]

When his uncle, William Rittenhouse, died, David inherited his uncle's carpentry tools and instructional books. At a young age, David showed a high level of intelligence by creating a working scale model of his great-grandfather William Rittenhouse's paper mill. He built other scale models in his youth, like a working waterwheel. David never attended elementary school—he was self-taught from his family's books, and he showed great ability in science and mathematics. When David was 13 years of age, he had mastered Isaac Newton's laws of motion and gravity.


At roughly age 17, David constructed a clock with wooden gears.[1][3][4]

At the age of 19, he started a scientific instrument shop at his father's farm in what is now Valley Forge Medical Center and Hospital, located in East Norriton Township, Pennsylvania. His skill with instruments, particularly clocks, led him to construct two orreries to scale models of the solar system, the first for The College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, and the second for the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania.

Rittenhouse was prevailed upon to construct the second orrery by his friend, the Reverend William Smith, the first provost of the College of Philadelphia, who was upset that he would deliver such a device to a college located in the rural area of New Jersey, rather than in Philadelphia, which was seeking to be one of the important centers of the 18th century enlightenment and for the study of "natural philosophy" such as astronomy. Both of these orreries still exist, with each being held by their original recipients: one in the library of the University of Pennsylvania and the other at Peyton Hall of Princeton University.

Clubs and societies[edit]

Astronomers who had been studying the planet Venus chose Rittenhouse to study the transit path of Venus in 1769 and its atmosphere. Rittenhouse was the perfect person to study the mysterious planet, as he had a personal observatory on his family farm. "His telescope, which he made himself, utilized grating intervals and spider threads on the focus of the telescope." His telescope is very similar to some modern-day telescopes. Rittenhouse served on the American Astronomical Society, and this was another factor in being chosen to study Venus.[citation needed] Throughout his life he had the honour to serve in many different clubs and committees.

In 1768, Rittenhouse was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society. He served as librarian, secretary, and after Benjamin Franklin's death in 1790, he became Vice president[5] then served as president of the society until 1796.[6][7] He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1782.[8]

Another one of his interests was the Royal Society of London of which he was a member. It was very rare for an American to be a member of this exclusive British society.

In 1786, Rittenhouse built a new Georgian-style house on the corner of 4th and Arch streets in Philadelphia, next to an octagonal observatory he had already built. At this house, he maintained a Wednesday evening salon meeting with Benjamin Franklin, Francis Hopkinson, Pierre Eugene du Simitiere and others. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather attend one of these meetings "than spend a whole week in Paris."[9]


Rittenhouse was married twice. He married Eleanor Coulston February 20, 1766, and they had two daughters: Elizabeth (born 1767) and Ester (born 1769). Eleanor died February 23, 1771, at age 35 from complications during the birth of their third baby, who died at birth.

David married his second wife Hannah Jacobs in late 1772.[10] They had an unnamed baby, who died at birth in late 1773. Hannah survived David by more than three years, dying in late 1799.

David's grandson, the son of Ester, was named David Rittenhouse Waters.[11]

Notable contributions to the United States[edit]

David Rittenhouse made many breakthroughs of importance to the United States. During the first part of his career he was a surveyor for Great Britain, and later served in the Pennsylvania government. His 1763–1764 survey of the Delaware–Pennsylvania border was a 12-mile (19 km) circle about the Court House in New Castle, Delaware, to define the northern border of Delaware. Rittenhouse's work was so precise and well-documented that it was incorporated without modification into Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon's survey of the Pennsylvania–Maryland border.

Later Rittenhouse helped establish the boundaries of several other states and commonwealths both before and after the Independence, including the boundaries between New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. In 1763 Mason and Dixon began a survey of the Pennsylvania–Maryland border, but this work was interrupted in 1767. In 1784 Rittenhouse and Andrew Ellicott completed this survey of the Mason–Dixon line to the southwest corner of Pennsylvania. When Rittenhouse's work as a surveyor ended, he resumed his scientific interests.

Transit of Venus[edit]

A diagram from Rittenhouse's observations of the 1769 transit of Venus

In 1768, the same year that he became a member of the American Philosophical Society, Rittenhouse announced plans to observe a pending transit of Venus across the Sun from several locations. The American Philosophical Society persuaded the legislature to grant £100 towards the purchase of new telescopes, and members volunteered to staff half of the 22 telescope stations when the event arrived.[12][13]

The transit of Venus occurred on June 3, 1769. Rittenhouse's great excitement at observing the infrequently occurring transit of Venus (for which he had prepared for a year) resulted in his fainting during the observation. In addition to the work involved in the preparations, he had also been ill the week before the transit. Lying on his back beneath the telescope, trained at the afternoon sun, he regained consciousness after a few minutes and continued his observations. His account of the transit, published in the American Philosophical Society's Transactions, does not mention his fainting, though it is otherwise meticulous in its record and documented.

Rittenhouse used the observations to calculate the distance from Earth to the Sun to be 93 million miles.[12] (This is the approximate average distance between Earth and the Sun.) The published report of the transit was hailed by European scientists, and Rittenhouse would correspond with famous contemporary astronomers, such as Jérôme Lalande and Franz Xaver von Zach.[12]


In 1770, Rittenhouse completed an advanced orrery; that is, a mechanical model of the Solar System. In recognition of the achievement, the College of New Jersey granted Rittenhouse an honorary degree.[13] The college then acquired ownership of the orrery. Rittenhouse made a new, more advanced model which remained in Philadelphia. The State of Pennsylvania paid Rittenhouse £300 as a tribute for his achievement.[14] One of Rittenhouse's hands or helpers with the project[15] was Henry Voigt, the clockmaker and Chief Coiner under Rittenhouse at the mint. Voigt later repaired the orrery in 1806 and was an earlier co-inventor of the first practical steamboat with John Fitch.

United States Mint[edit]

David Rittenhouse was treasurer of Pennsylvania from 1777 to 1789, and with these skills and the help of George Washington, he became the first director of the United States Mint.[16]

On April 2, 1792, the United States Mint opened its doors, but would not produce coins for almost four months. Rittenhouse believed that the design of a coin reflected the sophistication and culture of a country. The first coins were made from flatware that was provided by George Washington on the morning of July 30, 1792. The coins were hand-struck by Rittenhouse, to test the new equipment, and were given to Washington as a token of appreciation for his contributions to making the United States Mint a reality. The coin design had not been approved by Congress. Coin production on a large scale did not begin until 1793. Rittenhouse resigned from the Mint on June 30, 1795, due to poor health. In 1871 Congress approved a commemorative medal in his honor.

Additional contributions[edit]

In 1781 Rittenhouse became the first American to sight Uranus.[12]

In 1785 Rittenhouse made perhaps the first diffraction grating using 50 hairs between two finely threaded screws, with an approximate spacing of about 100 lines per inch.[17][18] This was roughly the same technique that Joseph von Fraunhofer used in 1821 for his wire diffraction grating.

Notable events[edit]

Grave of David Rittenhouse at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia

Other notable events in Rittenhouse's life include:

Jefferson's Notes on Virginia[edit]

In his book Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson listed Rittenhouse alongside Benjamin Franklin and George Washington as examples of New World genius when disputing French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon's claim that the environment and climate of North America had stunted the intellect of peoples living there both native and European.[20]

Tributes to David Rittenhouse[edit]

The blue field of stars in the American flag may be a tribute to the work of Rittenhouse.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

A fictionalized version of David Rittenhouse, portrayed by Armin Shimerman, appeared in the tenth episode of the first season of the NBC television series Timeless (2016–2018). The series re-imagines Rittenhouse as the founder of a sinister secret society that bears his name.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Lock, Jeffrey D. (December 2001). "Feature: Construction Details of Rittenhouse Compasses". Professional Surveyor Magazine. Frederick, Maryland: Professional Surveyors Publishing Company. ISSN 0278-1425. LCCN 82643590. OCLC 1043615987. Archived from the original on February 22, 2019. Retrieved February 22, 2019 – via Flatdog Media, Inc. David Rittenhouse was born April 8, 1732 in Roxborough Township, Philadelphia County. Around the age of 17 he constructed a clock with wooden gears. His father, recognizing his son's potential, helped David build a collection of tools necessary for clock making. After construction was completed on a small workshop at the family's Norriton farm, David began making and selling clocks.
  2. ^ "Dictionary of American Family Names (2 ed.)". oxfordreference.com. Oxford University Press. August 2022. Retrieved January 20, 2024. Americanized form of German Rittinghaus: habitational name from a farm near Altena, Westphalia. History: William Rittenhouse (1644–1708) was the first Mennonite preacher in North America. He was born in the Rhineland, Prussia (Germany) and worked as a papermaker in Amsterdam, emigrating to PA in 1688 and establishing the first paper mill in America. His great-grandson David Rittenhouse (1732–96) of Philadelphia was an astronomer and the first director of the United States Mint.
  3. ^ Barton, William (1813). Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse, LLD. F.R.S.: Late President of the American Philosophical Society, &c. Interspersed with Various Notices of Many Distinguished Men: with an Appendix, Containing Sundry Philosophical and Other Papers, Most of which Have Not Hitherto Been Published. Philadelphia: Edward Parker. p. 97. LCCN 15004714. OCLC 166059809. Retrieved February 23, 2019 – via Google Books. It was at this period, or rather at about the seventeenth year of his age, that he made a wooden clock, of very ingenious workmanship:
  4. ^ Sweinhart, Fred C. (October 1941). "Early Pennsylvania Clocks and Their Makers" (PDF). The Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County. 3 (1). Norristown, Pennsylvania: Historical Society of Montgomery County: 43. ISSN 0362-8590. LCCN sf77000139. OCLC 1681070. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 22, 2019. Retrieved February 22, 2019. David Rittenhouse was born in 1732 and died in 1796. .... He is said to have made his first clock at the age of 17 (1749). This was a wooden clock and the records show that he and his brother Benjamin made brass clocks in 1760.
  5. ^ Benjamin Franklin named Rittenhouse in his will, leaving him a telescope in return for the use of Rittenhouse's observatory. See Franklin's will on WikiSource.
  6. ^ "David Rittenhouse (1732–1796)]". Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Archives & Records Center. Archived from the original on January 23, 2019. Retrieved February 28, 2019.
  7. ^ UNDAUNTED: David Rittenhouse (1732–1796) Archived December 29, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. American Philosophical Society
  8. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter R" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 28, 2014.
  9. ^ a b Keim, 43
  10. ^ "David Rittenhouse Marriage Announcement". Pennsylvania Gazette. December 23, 1772. p. 3.
  11. ^ Rittenhouse Newsletter Vol 1–5, 1989
  12. ^ a b c d Purvis, Thomas L. (1995). Revolutionary America, 1763–1800. New York: Facts On File, Inc. p. 289. ISBN 0-8160-2528-2.
  13. ^ a b Keim, 40
  14. ^ Keim, 41
  15. ^ The Rittenhouse orrery: Princeton's Eighteenth-century Planetarium, 1767–1954. A commentary on an exhibition held in the Princeton University Library. Howard Crosby Rice. Princeton University Library, 1954. p.34
  16. ^ History of the Mint. United States Mint. Archived from the original on August 14, 2009. Retrieved June 11, 2009.
  17. ^ Rittenhouse, David (1786). "An optical problem, proposed by Mr. Hopkinson, and solved by Mr. Rittenhouse". Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. 2: 201–206.
  18. ^ Cope, Thomas D. (1932). "The Rittenhouse diffraction grating". David Rittenhouse Papers MSS.SMS.Coll.11: 377–382.
  19. ^ Cajori, Florian (1899). "The Teaching and History of Mathematics in the United States". Circular of Information No. 3. U.S. Government Printing Office. pp. 40–41.
  20. ^ Daniel Patterson, Roger Thompson (2008). Early American Nature Writers: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  21. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.
  22. ^ Available online at Internet Archive


Further reading[edit]

  • Greenslade, Thomas B., "Wire Diffraction Gratings," The Physics Teacher, February 2004. Volume 42 Issue 2, pp. 76–77. [1]

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
new office
Treasurer of Pennsylvania
Succeeded by
Government offices
Preceded by
New title
1st Director of the United States Mint
Succeeded by