Dec/Jan 1783 Vol 40 Issue 12
A Man of Science and Humanity
By Jillian Troy Davis
_____Science. To many of us, it is not a pressing subject. Most of us are content with the happenings of daily life. There are a few, however, who thirst to find out more about the world. Science is their passion. They are the ones who bring new knowledge and ways of thinking into our mundane lives. They may be named Isaac Newton or Benjamin Franklin - or, David Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse is one of our greatest thinkers who not only contributes to the science world, but also to society.
_____Rittenhouse was born in Paper Mill Run, Pennsylvania on the 8th of April in 1732. At a young age, Rittenhouse excelled in mathematics and the physical sciences though he did not have a formal education. At the age of 19, Rittenhouse started an instrument shop in his father's barn, also making and mending clocks. Throughout this time, Rittenhouse's insatiable desire to learn led him to study optics and to design precision instruments such as an early telescope. With these instruments, he made various land surveys, drew half of the boundaries of our colonies, in addition to settling the dispute between the Penns and Lord Baltimore in 1763-64.
_____Rittenhouse's greatest love may be for the heavenly bodies. He studies the skies with the telescope that he designed in the observatory that he built. He first built this telescope to record Venus' path over North America in 1769. However, Rittenhouse will be best known for his orrery, a model of the solar system that shows lunar and solar eclipse and similar phenomenon. Made in around 1767, the orrery can also show these occurrences "for a period of 5000 years, either forward or backward". The orrery displays the position of the planets, their orbits and even their velocities. Turning a winch will turn the orrery on and the three indexes indicate the hour of the day, the day of the month and the year of a particular heavenly body for the period of 5000 years. Though the machine cannot be kept moving like pendulum clocks can, the winch provides for a outcome that can be adjusted to any time - present, future or past.
_____Though we know Rittenhouse primarily as an astronomer and inventor, he is also a fellow patriot who actively contributes to the community. Rittenhouse served as an engineer and president of the Committee of Safety in 1775 and as been a Professor of Astronomy in the University of Pennsylvania ever since 1779. He has also been Vice-Provost for two years and this year became a Trustee. We also cannot forget how he encouraged Thomas Paine to write Common Sense. Without his support, our independent spirits may not have been stirred and we may still be under British rule. We need to credit much of our freedom to Rittenhouse.
_____There are not many who have made such lasting impressions in our everyday lives. Rittenhouse's wide range of talents has brought us so much knowledge and service. He has enhanced our way of living with his amazing ability to create a harmony between the world of science and of mankind.