This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

New World Genius

479px-Charles_Willson_Peale_-_David_Rittenhouse_-_Google_Art_Project

April 8, 1732: David Rittenhouse Born

“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.”

                                Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1784.

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. A leading American scientist of the eighteenth century second only to Benjamin Franklin.  [portrait above by Charles Wilson Peale, 1796]

At an early age Rittenhouse inherited his uncle’s carpentry tools and began creating. At 13 he had mastered Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and gravity and at 17 built his first wooden clock. He started a scientific instrument shop when he was only 19 and gained quite a reputation, constructing 2 orreries (scale models of the solar system) for Rutgers University. In return Rutgers offered him a scholarship enabling him to obtain a degree in philosophy.

Detail of Orrery

Detail of Orrery

Rittenhouse Orrery

Rittenhouse Orrery

 

At 28 he published his first mathematical paper, one of many to be published throughout his career. He was one the first in the United States to build a telescope. His telescope was used to observe the transit of Venus across the sun in 1769 as well as the planet’s atmosphere. In 1781 he was the first American to sight Uranus.

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Rittenhouse's notes of the transit of Venus

Rittenhouse’s notes of the transit of Venus

He designed eyeglasses for Washington, and made improvements on the Franklin stove.

Rittenhouse was shy throughout his life and didn’t make many close friends. His few intimate friends though included some of the greatest scientific minds of the day. He was one of Benjamin Franklin’s intimate friends and regularly attended his Wednesday night philosophical parties. He was one of the pallbearers at Franklin’s funeral and in his will, Franklin left him his telescope.

Rittenhouse designed coin

Rittenhouse designed coin

Rittenhouse was treasurer of Pennsylvania from 1777 to 1789, and this lead to his becoming the first director of the United States Mint. Rittenhouse believed that the design of the coin made the coin a piece of artwork. The first coins were made from flatware and were hand-struck by Rittenhouse to test the new equipment.

Rittenhouse was one of the first owners of this half dime coin that sold for 1.5 million in 2007

Rittenhouse was one of the first owners of this half dime coin that sold for 1.5 million in 2007

The silver dollar pictured here was chosen by Rittenhouse to be the nations first silver coin.

The silver dollar pictured here was chosen by Rittenhouse to be the nations first silver coin.

After a lifetime of work that made science practical and brought the benefits of the science to humankind, David Rittenhouse died at his home in Philadelphia on June 26, 1796. On the evening of the following day he was buried underneath the floor of his observatory.

Print of Rittenhouse Observatory

Print of Rittenhouse Observatory

 

 

 

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.

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All seriousness aside, physic and pendulum reader Dr. Semkiw, believes that Carl Sagan was reincarnated from Rittenhouse.

Sagan

Personally I’m going with Nick Cage

20120713_NicRitt

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