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David Rittenhouse

Birthplace: Germantown, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States
Death: June 26, 1796 (64)
Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Place of Burial: Philadelphia County
Immediate Family:

Son of Matthias Rittenhouse and Elizabeth Rittenhouse
Husband of Eleanor Rittenhouse and Hannah Rittenhouse
Father of Elizabeth Sergeant; Esther Waters and David Rittenhouse, Jr
Brother of Margaret Morgan; Esther Barton; Eleanor Evans; Capt. Benjamin Rittenhouse; Mary Cloyd and 4 others

Occupation: Professor of Astronomy, Astronomer, Inventor, Instrument Maker and first director of the U.S. Mint
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About David Rittenhouse

DAR # A096491


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.

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. 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. Following the death of Franklin in 1790, Rittenhouse served as president of the American Philosophical Society until 1796.

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."


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.

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 would help 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

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.

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 docomented.

Rittenhouse used the observations to calculate the distance from Earth to the Sun to be 93-million miles. (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.


In 1770 Rittenhouse completed an advanced orrery. In recognition of the achievement, the College of New Jersey granted Rittenhouse an honorary degree. 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.

Rittenhouse was admired by many colonial Americans and scientists, including Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. 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. Rittenhouse also used the occasion to decry slavery. 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.

United States Mint

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. 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 .
Other notable events in Rittenhouse's life include:

1763–1764 Worked on the boundary survey of Pennsylvania and Maryland

1767 Granted an honorary master's degree from the College of Philadelphia (later University of Pennsylvania)

1768 Discovered the atmosphere of Venus

1769 Observed the transit of Venus

1770 Came to Philadelphia

1775 Engineer of the Committee of Safety

1779–1782 Professor of Astronomy in the University of the State of Pennsylvania, now known simply as the University of Pennsylvania

1780–1782 Vice-Provost

1782–1796 Trustee

1779–1787 Treasurer of Pennsylvania

1784 Completed the survey of the Mason-Dixon line

1791–1796 President of the American Philosophical Society

1792–1795 First Director of the United States Mint

1793 He was a founder of the Democratic-Republican Societies in Philadelphia.

Tributes to David Rittenhouse

Rittenhouse Crater is a lunar crater named for 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. To the west of Rittenhouse Square, on Walnut Street, the University of Pennsylvania houses its Physics and Mathematics departments in the David Rittenhouse Laboratory.

One admirer and colleague of Rittenhouse, Francis Hopkinson, was on the Navy Board that wrote the Flag Act of 1777, which defined the Flag of the United States of America and explained the blue field of stars as a representation of "a new constellation." This is thought by some to be a direct tribute to Rittenhouse. Biographer Brooke Hindle wrote, "Few admired Rittenhouse more unrestrainedly than Francis Hopkinson."


  1. I00784
  2. Name: David RITTENHOUSE
  3. Sex: M
  4. Birth: 08 APR 1732 in Roxborough, Germantown, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania
  5. Burial: 27 JUN 1796 Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania
  6. Death: 26 JUN 1796 in Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania
  7. Note:
   1. Not a member of the Mennonite Church
   2. American astronomer, b. Germantown, Adams County, Pennsylvania. Great-grandson of William Rittenhouse. Gained reputation by building two orreries, one for Princeton U. (c.1767) and one for the U. of Pennsylvania. Built observatory and a transit telescope, believed to be first telescope made in America, to observe the transit of Venus (1769). Inventor of a collimating telescope (1785); one of earliest to use spider webs as reticule in the eyepiece of a telescope. During Revolutionary War, served as member of Pennsylvania assembly (1776) and president of the council of safety (1777); treasurer of Pennsylvania (1777-89). First director, U.S. Mint (1792-95). President, succeeding Benjamin Franklin, of American Philosophical Society (1791-96).

3. "David Rittenhouse, was born at Paper Mill Run, Roxborough township, near Germantown, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania on April 8, 1732. He died in Philadelphia June 26, 1796. He was a brother to Benjamin Rittenhouse, also a noted instrument maker.

His first public service was a boundary survey for William Penn in 1763-64 to settle a dispute with Lord Baltimore. He laid out on the ground, the twelve mile radius around Newcastle, Delaware which forms the boundary between Pennsylvania and Delaware. So accurate was the work that it was accepted by Mason and Dixon. In 1770 he removed to Philadelphia. He was employed as a surveyor between 1779 and 1786 on boundary surveys and commissions involving Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts--over half the British colonies in America. He was the first one in America to put spider web in the focus of his telescope. He was professor of astronomy in the University of Pennsylvania and served on its board of trustees. He made and repaired instruments for (George) Washington. (Benjamin) Franklin consulted him on various occasions. For (Thomas) Jefferson he standardized the foot by pendulum measurements in a project to establish a decimal system of weights and measures. He was appointed the first director of the Mint by Washington on April 14, 1792 and served until June 1795. He was painted by Peale and Trumbull, a marble bust was made by Ceracchi and a bronze medal by Barber, engraver of the Mint.

At Franklin's death he was elected president of the American Philosophical Society on January 7, 1791 and by re-election until his death.

Among the surveyor's compasses that bear his name, the best known are the two that he made for George Washington."

Treasurer of Pennsylvania, 1777-1789

Professor of Astronomy , University of Pennsylvania, 1779-1782

Director, U.S. Mint, Philadelphia, 1792-1795

Royal Society of London, England, elected a Fellow, 1796

American Philosophical Society, President, 1790-1796

RITTENHOUSE, DAVID (1732—1796), American astronomer, was born at Germantown, Pennsylvania, on the 8th of April 1732.

First a watchmaker and mechanician he afterwards became treasurer of Pennsylvania (1777—89), and from 1792 to 1795 director of the U.S. mint (Philadelphia). He was largely occupied in 1763 and in 1779—86 in settling the boundaries of several of the states. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and a member of, the American Philosophical Society; and was elected president of the latter society in 1791. As an astronomer, Rittenhouse’s principal merit is that he introduced in 1786 the use of spider lines in the focus of a transit instrument. His priority with regard to this useful invention was acknowledged by E. Troughton, who brought spider lines into universal use in astronomical instruments (see von. Zach’s Mo~ia~tliche Correspondenz, vol. ii. p. 215), but Felice Fontana. (1730-’ 1805), professor of physics at the university of Pisa, and afterwards director of the museum at ‘Florence, had already anticipated the invention in 1775, though no doubt this fact was unknown, to Rittenhouse. His researches were published in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (i785~ ‘799). He died at Philadelphia on the 26th of June 1796.

Other notable events in Rittenhouse's life include:

   1763–1764 Worked on the boundary survey of Pennsylvania and Maryland
   1767 Granted an honorary master's degree from the College of Philadelphia (later University of Pennsylvania)
   1768 Discovered the atmosphere of Venus
   1769 Observed the transit of Venus
   1770 Came to Philadelphia
   1775 Engineer of the Committee of Safety
   1779–1782 Professor of Astronomy in the University of the State of Pennsylvania, now known simply as the University of Pennsylvania
       1780–1782 Vice-Provost
       1782–1796 Trustee
   1779–1787 Treasurer of Pennsylvania
   1784 Completed the survey of the Mason-Dixon line
   1791–1796 President of the American Philosophical Society
   1792–1795 First Director of the United States Mint
   1793 He was a founder of the Democratic-Republican Societies in Philadelphia.
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David Rittenhouse's Timeline

April 8, 1732
Germantown, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States
January 23, 1767
Roxborough Township, Philadephia, PA
Roxborough Township,Philadelphia County,Pennsylvania,,,, Pennsylvania
February 21, 1771
Philadelphia,Philadelphia County,Pennsylvania,,,, Pennsylvania
June 26, 1796
Age 64
Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
June 27, 1796
Age 64
Laurel Hill Cemetery,Philadelphia,Philadelphia County,Pennsylvania,,, Philadelphia County