David Rittenhouse (April 8, 1732 - June 26, 1796) was the first director
of the United States Mint from 1792 to 1795. However, he was also noted for
being an important surveyor of colonial (and later, state) boundaries, and
for being one of the finest scientific instrument-makers in Colonial America.
His work included the construction of many surveying and astronomical
instruments, including clocks, telescopes, and orreries.
The eagerness with which Rittenhouse tackled his interests was
astonishing: though he did many great things and became well-respected as
a scientist and engineer, he was entirely self-taught. Rittenhouse
may rightly be called one of the few great scientists of Colonial America,
second only to Benjamin Franklin.
The Rittenhouse family
David was the great-grandson of William Rittenhouse, a Dutch Mennonite who
immigrated to the Americas in 1687 and settled near modern-day
Germantown, Pennsylvania. The elder Rittenhouse founded the first paper
mills in the Americas, and the industrious family became a prominent one in
the colony of Pennsylvania. William's children would continue the family
business after William's death in 1708, though several would branch out into
other fields including preaching in the Mennonite Church, and farming. But
one family scion was destined for even greater things.
The young engineer
In his early life, David Rittenhouse seemed destined to become a
farmer like his father, Matthias. However, David received several
books on mathematics and geometry along with a chest of tools from the
estate of an uncle, and the young boy put these to intense use. When he
turned 18, he established a clock and instrument making business in Norriton
(probably modern Norristown), a trade he shared with his younger brother
Benjamin Rittenhouse. With his new trade, he continued his studies of
mathematics and geometry; at one point, he worked out the rudiments of
on his own, not realizing that these same methods had been worked out half
a century prior. (Though chagrined to find he wasn't the first, he soon
devoured a translation of Newton's Principia). He also
began studying astronomy and surveying, and he would
soon make noteworthy contributions in both fields.
One of his most important tasks as a surveyor was his 1763-4 survey of the
Delaware-Pennsylvania border, which entailed drawing a 12-mile circle
about the Court House in New Castle, Delaware (which is why the northern
border of the state of Delaware is curved). 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
Later Rittenhouse would help establish the boundaries of several other
states and commonwealths both before and after Independence, including the
boundaries between New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Though he was a fine surveyor by trade, he was a noted crafter of surveying
instruments -- like compasses and sectors -- used by
many surveyors throughout the colonies (including George Washington).
He was also credited with several inventions and improvements to surveying
equipment, including the addition of a declination arc to the surveyor's
compass. However, his interest in instrumentation wasn't limited
to surveying and clocks.
Since Rittenhouse was an avid student of astronomy, he constructed several
fine telescopes, highly-accurate clocks, and quadrants.
In fact, he constructed several such instruments specifically to observe the
June 3, 1769 transit of the planet Venus across the face of the Sun,
a transit which he had himself calculated. He constructed the first true observatory in the colonies near
Philadelphia for the transit, and convinced colonial authorities to establish other smaller observatories for
this purpose -- it amounted to the first major astronomical
"experiment" conducted in Colonial America. Following this, he continued building more clocks
famed for their precision, and several orreries which sold for
hundreds of pounds each. Rittenhouse's interest and work
in astronomy would eventually lead to his appointment to a professorship in
astronomy to the University of Pennsylvania from 1779 to 1782, and would
contribute to his election to the presidency of the American Philosophical
Society. His predecessor, Benjamin Franklin, died in office in 1791, and
Rittenhouse himself was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson -- he was certainly
in good company! He was made an
honorary Fellow of The Royal Society in 1795 shortly before his death.
Rittenhouse as public servant
Rittenhouse's work as a public servant began in the 1770's, beginning with
an attempt to make the Schuylkill River navigable in 1773. Later, during
the Revolution, Rittenhouse served as an engineer for
the "Committee of Safety" which was charged with various tasks including
improvements in cannon and musket design and casting. Later, he would serve
as Pennsylvania's Treasurer and Secretary of State. However, his most significant post was as
the first director of the fledgling United States Mint, to which he was
appointed by President George Washington in 1792. In this post, he oversaw
the construction of the first Federal building in the United States, along
with the Mint's first issuance of coins in 1793.
David Rittenhouse died in Philadelphia on June 26, 1796, and is buried in
Laurel Hill Cemetery near the Schuylkill River. In 1825, the old
"Southwest Square" in Philadelphia was renamed Rittenhouse Square
in his honor.
Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography (Appleton and Co., 1887) from
S.A. Bedini, Early American Scientific Instruments and Their Makers,
Smithsonian Institution: United States National Museum Bulletin v.231, 1964