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definitions - David Rittenhouse

David Rittenhouse (n.)

1.United States astronomer said to have built the first telescope made in America; also the first director of the United States Mint (1732-1796)

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synonyms - David Rittenhouse

David Rittenhouse (n.)


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astronomer; uranologist; stargazer[ClasseHyper.]




astronomy, uranology[PersonneQuiFait]


David Rittenhouse (n.)


David Rittenhouse

David Rittenhouse
Born (1732-04-08)April 8, 1732
Paper Mill Run, Pennsylvania
Died June 26, 1796(1796-06-26) (aged 64)
Occupation Astronomer
  This is David Rittenhouse's home as it appeared c. 1919.

David Rittenhouse (April 8, 1732 – June 26, 1796) was a renowned 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.



Rittenhouse was born near Germantown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in a small village called RittenhouseTown. This village is located along the stream Paper Mill Run; the stream itself a tiny tributary of the Wissahickon Creek.

When his uncle died, Rittenhouse inherited his uncle's set of carpentry tools and instructional books. He used these tools and began a career as an inventor. At a young age, Rittenhouse showed a high level of intelligence by creating a working scale model of his grandfather's paper mill. He was self-taught and showed great ability in science and mathematics.

When Rittenhouse was 13 years of age, he had mastered Isaac Newton's laws of motion and gravity. As a young boy he loved to build scale models, such as a working waterwheel and a paper mill. Rittenhouse never went to elementary school and was completely self-educated from family books.

When he was 19, he started a scientific instrument shop at his father's farm in what is now East Norriton Township, Pennsylvania. His skill with instruments, particularly clocks, led him to construct two orreries (scale models of the solar system) for Rutgers University in New Jersey. In return for the gift, the college gave him a scholarship to attend the college enabling him to obtain a degree in philosophy. One of the orreries is currently in the library of the University of Pennsylvania and the other is at Peyton Hall of Princeton University.

At the age of 28, he published his first mathematical paper; this is one of many papers published throughout his life.

Rittenhouse was one of the first to build a telescope in the United States. His telescope, which utilized natural spider silk to form the reticle, was used to observe and record part of the transit of Venus across the sun on June 3, 1769, as well as the planet's atmosphere.

In 1781 Rittenhouse became the first American to sight Uranus.[1]

In 1784 Rittenhouse, surveyor Andrew Ellicott and their crew completed the unfinished survey of the Mason Dixon line to the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, 5 degrees of longitude from the Delaware River.

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. This was roughly the same technique that Joseph von Fraunhofer used in 1821 for his wire diffraction grating.

In 1813 Rittenhouse's nephew (and American Philosophical Society member) William Barton published a biography, Memoirs of the life of David Rittenhouse.[2] Former president Thomas Jefferson ordered six copies directly from the author.

  Clubs and societies

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. Throughout his life he had the honour to serve in many different clubs and committees.

In 1768 he was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society. He served as librarian, secretary, and after Benjamin Franklin's death, he became Vice president.[3] Following the death of Franklin in 1790, Rittenhouse served as president of the American Philosophical Society until 1796.[4][5]

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."[6]


David Rittenhouse was married twice. He married Eleanor Coulston February 20, 1766, and they had two daughters: Elizabeth (born 1767) and Ester (born 1769). David's first wife 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 on December 31, 1772. They had an unnamed baby, who died at birth in late 1773. Hannah outlived David by more than 3 years, dying in late 1799.

David's grandson (son of Ester) was named David Rittenhouse Waters.[7]

  Notable contributions to the United States

David Rittenhouse made many breakthroughs during his life, which were great contributions to the U.S. 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 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

  Diagram from David 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 man half of the 22 telescope stations when the event arrived.[1][8]

The transit of Venus occurred on 3 June 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.[1] (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.[1]


In 1770 Rittenhouse completed an advanced orrery. In recognition of the achievement, the College of New Jersey granted Rittenhouse an honorary degree.[8] 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.[9] One of Rittenhouse's hands or helpers with the project[10] 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.

Rittenhouse was admired by many colonial Americans and scientists, including Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson,[9] and John Adams.[8] On February 24, 1775, Rittenhouse delivered a lecture on the history of astronomy to the American Philosophical Society, in which he linked the structure of nature to the rights of man, liberty and self-government.[9][11] Rittenhouse also used the occasion to decry slavery.[12] So impressed were those in attendance that the American Philosophical Society commissioned the speech to be printed and distributed to delegates of the Second Continental Congress when they arrived in 1776.[12][13]

  United States Mint

  The 1783 Nova Constellatio coin was first minted in Philadelphia. David Rittenhouse was consulted on the design.[12]

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.[14] 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 the coin made the coin a piece of artwork. The first coins were made from flatware that was provided by Washington himself 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 coin in his honor.

  Notable events

  Grave of David Rittenhouse at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Other notable events in Rittenhouse's life include:

  Tributes to David Rittenhouse

  The blue field of stars in the American flag may be a tribute to the work of David Rittenhouse[citation needed]
  • In 1825, one of William Penn's original squares in Philadelphia, called 'Southwest Square' (being in the southwest quadrant of the original city plan) was renamed Rittenhouse Square in David Rittenhouse's honor.


  1. ^ a b c d Purvis, 289
  2. ^ Available online at Google Books
  3. ^ 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..
  4. ^ University of Pennsylvania
  5. ^ UNDAUNTED: David Rittenhouse (1732–1796) from the American Philosophical Society
  6. ^ a b Keim, 43
  7. ^ Rittenhouse Newsletter Vol 1–5, 1989
  8. ^ a b c Keim, 40
  9. ^ a b c Keim, 41
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ Original text available from Google Books.
  12. ^ a b c Keim, 42
  13. ^ Richard Smith's Diary, Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume: 3 January 1, 1776 – May 15, 1776. From the Library of Congress. Website accessed June 29, 2009.
  14. ^ History of the Mint from usmint.gov. Website accessed 11 June 2009
  15. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. http://nrhp.focus.nps.gov/natreg/docs/All_Data.html. 
  • Greenslade, Thomas B., "Wire Diffraction Gratings," The Physics Teacher, February 2004. Volume 42 Issue 2, pp. 76–77. [1]
  • Keim, Kevin; Keim, Peter (2007). A Grand Old Flag. A History of the United States through Its Flags. New York, New York: Dorling Kindersley Ltd. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/978-0-7566-8247-5|978-0-7566-8247-5]]. 
  • Purvis, Thomas L. (1995). Revolutionary America, 1763–1800. New York: Facts On File, Inc. ISBN 0-8160-2528-2. 

  External links

Government offices
Preceded by
New title
1st Director of the United States Mint
Succeeded by
Henry William de Saussure


All translations of David Rittenhouse

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