David Rittenhouse

American astronomer (*1732 – †1796)

David Rittenhouse (April 8, 1732June 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.

David Rittenhouse in 1796


  • I have no health for a soldier, and as I have no expectation of serving my country in that way, I am spending my time in the old trifling manner, and am so taken with optics, that I do not know whether, if the enemy should invade this part of the country, as Archimedes was slain while making geometrical figures on the sand, so I should die making a telescope.
  • I do not design a machine which will give the ignorant in astronomy a just view of the solar system, but would rather astonish the skilful and curious observer by a most accurate correspondence between the situations and motions of our little representatives of our heavenly bodies and the situations and motions of those bodies themselves. I would have my orrery really useful by making it capable of informing us truly of the astronomical phenomena for any particular point of time, which I do not find that any orrery yet made can do.
    • Letter to Thomas Barton (Jan 28, 1767) as quoted by Florian Cajori, The Teaching and History of Mathematics in the United States (1890) p. 39.
  • The direct tendency of (Astronomy) is to dilate the heart with universal benevolence, and to enlarge its views.
    • An Oration delivered February 24, 1775, before The American Philiosophical Society held at Philiadelphia, for promoting useful knowledge in William Barton (1813). Memoirs of the life of David Rittenhouse. Somerset Publishers, Incorporated. p. 569.  [1]

Quotes about Rittenhouse

  • See the sage Rittenhonse, with ardent eye,
    Lift the long tube and pierce the starry sky;
    Clear in his view the circling systems roll,
    And broader splendours gild the central pole.
    He marks what laws th' eccentric wand'rers bind,
    Copies Creation in his forming mind,
    And bids, beneath his hand, in semblance rise,
    With mimic orbs, the labours of the skies.
    There wond'ring crowds with raptur'd eye behold
    The spangled heav'ns their mystic maze unfold;
    While each glad sage his splendid hall shall grace,
    With all the spheres that cleave th' ethereal space.
  • 'America had not yet produced one good poet.' When we shall have existed as a people as long as the Greeks did before they produced a Homer, the Romans a Virgil, the French a Racine and Voltaire, the English a Shakespeare and Milton, should this reproach be still true, we will inquire from what unfriendly causes it has proceeded, that the other countries of Europe and quarters of the earth shall not have inscribed any name in the roll of poets. But neither has America produced 'one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science.' In war we have produced a Washington, whose memory will be adored while liberty shall have votaries, whose name shall triumph over time, and will in future ages assume its just station among the most celebrated worthies of the world, when that wretched philosophy shall be forgotten which would have arranged him among the degeneracies of nature. In physics we have produced a Franklin, than whom no one of the present age has made more important discoveries, nor has enriched philosophy with more, or more ingenious solutions of the phenomena of nature. We have supposed Mr. Rittenhouse second to no astronomer living: that in genius he must be the first, because he is self-taught. As an artist he has exhibited as great a proof of mechanical genius as the world has ever produced. He has not indeed made a world; but he has by imitation approached nearer its Maker than any man who has lived from the creation to this day.
  • Before the nineteenth century, writers on education portayed the "improvement of mind" as an activity mainly suited to gentlemen. ...both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush had venerated David Rittenhouse as an example of how arduous philosophical investigation might elevate the child of humble parents. But Jefferson and Rush tagged Rittenhouse as a genius, and hence untypical, and each employed Rittenhouse as ammunition in a debate among educated gentlemen. Jefferson invoked Rittenhouse in his Notes on the State of Virginia, a book he wrote to disabuse French philosophes of the notion that all specied degenerated in the New World; Rush used his eulogy of Rittenhouse before the select audience of the American Philosophical Society to ridicule colleges for requiring students to learn the ancient languages.
    • Joseph F. Kett, The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in America, 1750-1990 (1994)
  • The year 1775 opened with a project intended to bring the abilities of Rittenhouse more effectually into the service of science. The Philosophical Society addressed the colonial legislature of Pennsylvania, praying it to establish a public observatory, and commit it to the care of Rittenhouse. Had the circumstances of the times permitted this project to be carried into effect, it would have enabled him to occupy a great space in the history of astronomy. He had already shown himself the equal, in point of learning and skill as an observer, to any practical astronomer then living; nothing was wanting to make him rank with the Flamsteads, the Halleys, and the Maskelynes, but that he should be permitted to devote his whole mind to this pursuit, and be furnished with those instruments and accommodations, for which no private fortune will suffice. Other men might have been found as well, nay, better qualified for the political pursuits and public offices in which it became his fate to spend the rest of his life; but America has never yet produced any individual who has manifested so great a capacity for extending the domain of practical astronomy. To arrange the details of a disorganized and depreciating currency, to collect and disburse a scanty and ill-paid revenue, were thereafter to be the pursuits of our philosopher; and he was to expend upon the estimates and returns of the tax-gatherer those powers of mind which were capable of grasping, and that mechanical skill which sufficed to imitate, the vast mechanism of the universe.
  • It was during the residence of our ingenious philosopher with his father in the country that he made himself master of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia, which he read in the English translation of Mr. Motte. It was here, likewise, he became acquainted with the science of fluxions; of which sublime invention he believed himself, for a while, to be the author, nor did he know for some years afterwards that a contest had been carried on between Sir Isaac Newton and Leibnitz for the honor of the great and useful discovery. What a mind was here! Without literary friends or society, and with but two or three books, he became, before he had reached his four and twentieth year, the rival of two of the greatest mathematicians in Europe.
    • Benjamin Rush, An Eulogium, Intended to Perpetuate the Memory of David Rittenhouse, Late President of the American Philosophical Society, Delivered before the Society in the First Presbyterian Church, in High-Street, in Philadelphia, on the 17th Dec. 1796
  • Among the books he inherited from his uncle was an English translation of the "Principia" of Newton. Such was the progress which he made in mathematical knowledge, although now destitute of any aid, that he was enabled to accomplish the perusal of this work, for the proper understanding of which so much acquaintance with geometry and algebra is necessary, before he had attained his nineteenth year. Newton, as is well known, from deference to the practice of the ancient philosophers, adopts in this work the synthetic method of demonstration, and gives no clue to the analytic process by which the truth of his propositions was first discovered by him. Unlike the English followers of this distinguished philosopher, who contented themselves, for a time, with following implicitly in the path of geometric demonstration, which he had thus pointed out, Rittenhouse applied himself to search for an instrument, which might be applied to the purpose of similar discoveries, and in his researches attained the principles of the method of fluxions. So ignorant was he of the progress which this calculus had made, and of the discussions in relation to its invention and improvement, that he for a time considered it as a new discovery of his own. In this impression, however, he could not have long continued; as he made, in his nineteenth year, an acquaintance who was well qualified to set him right in this important point.

The Teaching and History of Mathematics in the United States (1890)


Florian Cajori

  • The most noted mathematician and astronomer of early times [in the U.S.] was not a professor in a college, nor had he been trained within college walls. We have reference to David Rittonhouse.
  • His invention, whatever it may have been, was not of sufficient importance to deserve the name of an "invention of fluxions." If Rittenhouse actually made an invention of such transcending magnitude before the age of twenty, and at a time when he had hardly begun his scientific studies, how is it that he made not the slightest approach to any similar discovery during the forty-four years of his maturer life? Though always a passionate lover of scientific pursuits, he made no original contributions whatever to the science of pure mathematics. Science is indebteded to him chiefly for his orreries and the observations of the transit of Venus. ...the alleged invention of fluxions was little more than a "rumor set afloat by idle gossip." It serves to show us, however, in what unbounded admiration he was held by his countrymen.
  • As a mechanic, Rittenhouse became celebrated for the extreme exactness and finish of his workmanship. Especially celebrated were his chronometer clocks. It was while thus engaged in the manufacture of clocks that he planned and executed an instrument which brought into play both his mechanical and mathematical skill. ...the orrery. It was, indeed, intended to be a sort of a perpetual astronomical almanac, in which the results, instead of being exhibited in tables, were to be actually exhibited to the eye. His orrery greatly exceeded all others in precision. It attracted very general attention among well informed persons... There arose a lively competition between different colleges in this country for the possession of this orrery.
  • Only two transits of Venus had been observed before his time, and of these, the first, in 1639, had been seen by only two persons. These transits happen so seldom that there cannot be more than two in one century, and in some centuries none at all. But the transits of Venus are the best means we have for determining the parallax of the sun. ...The observations were a success and established for Rittenhonse the reputation of an exact and careful astronomer. ...During the transit Rittenhouse saw one phenomenon which escaped the notice of all other astronomers. When the planet had advanced about half of its [Venus'] diameter upon the sun, that part of the edge of the planet which was off the sun's disc appeared illuminated, so that the outline of the entire planet could be seen. But a complete circle of light around Venus would indicate that more than half of Venus is illuminated. This can happen... only when the rays of light are refracted by an atmosphere. Hence... Venus is surrounded, like the earth, by an atmosphere. But this appearance of a ring of light was not confirmed by other astronomers, and the statement of Rittenhouse excited no attention for nearly a century, until his observation was at last confirmed by other astronomers.
  • If our astronomer be judged by the original contributions which, under existing adverse circumstances, he actually did make to astronomy and mathematics, then it must be admitted that he can not be placed in the foremost rank of astronomers then living. Friends will judge him by what he might have done; the world at large will judge him by what he actually accomplished. Our greatest indebtedness to Rittenhouse lies not in the original contributions he made to science, but rather in the interest which he aroused in astronomical pursuits, and in the diffusion of scientific knowledge in the New World which resulted from his efforts.
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