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Why History Should Remember the Name, David Rittenhouse

People | December 4, 2018

American astronomer David Rittenhouse (circa 1775). (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

A contemporary of the Founding Fathers of the United States, David Rittenhouse was an influential astronomer, scientist, surveyor, and businessman in the early days of the country’s history. Although his contributions to the fledgling nation are often overshadowed by the deeds of people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, we have David Rittenhouse to thank for, among other things, the shape and boundaries of many of our states and the design of our coins. Let us look at the work of this man of many interests to know why history should remember the name, David Rittenhouse. 

Rittenhouse was a Pennsylvanian before Pennsylvania was a State

In 1732, David Rittenhouse was born in a section of Philadelphia that was, at the time, called Rittenhousetown. Today, we know it better as Germantown. But having a neighborhood in a prominent city named for one’s family shows the importance of the family. The Rittenhouse family established the first paper mill in America. His family roots run deep in the Philadelphia area…today, there is Rittenhouse Square in the city.

George Washington

David Rittenhouse Was the First Director of the U.S. Mint

David Rittenhouse had been serving as the treasure for Pennsylvania, a position he held from 1777 until 1789 when President George Washington tapped him to oversee the establishment of the United States Mint. The first U.S. coins were handmade by Rittenhouse, using flatware that was donated to the cause by Martha Washington. It was Rittenhouse who firmly believed that a country’s coin design was a reflection on the culture and sophistication of that country, therefore he was instrumental in the design of the coins, working with Congress for the final approval.

David Rittenhouse Established the State Borders…and More

A careful and meticulous scientist and mathematician, Rittenhouse often took breaks from his scientific studies to work as a surveyor. He was responsible for setting the borders for several eastern states, including Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Most importantly, Rittenhouse established the line between the northern part of Delaware and the southern part of Pennsylvania. This boundary was so well placed that it was agreed upon by other states. Later, it was accepted as established boundary when Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon mapped Maryland. Rittenhouse’s work led to the creation of the Mason-Dixon line. 

Rittenhouse's notes on the Venus Transit of 1769.

David Rittenhouse was an Astronomer

Rittenhouse had an affinity for the sciences, particularly astronomy. He even built his own telescope on his estate in Philadelphia, the first telescope in the U.S. A member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Astronomical Society, Rittenhouse was chosen to lead a study on the Venus Transit which occurred in 1769. Using his hand built telescope, which he outfitted with tiny spider webs to form cross hair, a new innovation, was able to accurately observe and chart the movement of Venus. In fact, his telescope was so powerful that he was the first to observe the atmosphere of Venus. His groundbreaking scientific work led to Rittenhouse’s election to the Royal Society of London in 1795, a rare honor for a non-Englishman. 

Rittenhouse Built Models of the Solar System

David Rittenhouse was skilled in clock making. He used this precision work to invent several scientific instruments or to make his own modifications to existing ones. Rittenhouse combined his talent with mechanical instruments with his scientific observations with his telescope to make two highly accurate orreries or scale models of the solar system. When Rittenhouse finished the first one, so the story goes, he donated it to what was then called The College of New Jersey, but today is Princeton University. When his friend and provost of the College of Philadelphia, Reverend William Smith, learned of Rittenhouse’s gift to The College of New Jersey, he was miffed. He questioned why Rittenhouse would give his creation to another state instead of keeping it in his native Philadelphia. Rittenhouse responded by making a second orrery which he gave to the College of Philadelphia. Both orreries are still housed at their respective colleges. 

Thomas Jefferson

Rittenhouse Hosted Discussion Groups

In his Philadelphia home, David Rittenhouse hosted Wednesday evening meetings with some of the top minds of the day, including Benjamin Franklin, Francis Hopkinson, and more. The conversations and debates were so intriguing and lively that Thomas Jefferson once quipped that he’d rather go to one of Rittenhouse’s meetings than spend a whole week in Paris. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.