“We want hands, my lord, more than heads. The most intimate acquaintance with the classics will not remove our oaks; nor a taste for the Georgics cultivate our lands.”


to the Bishop of Llandaff

“Go on making experiments entirely on your own initiative and thereby pursue a path entirely different from that of the Europeans, for then you shall certainly find many things which have been hidden to natural philosophers throughout the space of centuries.”


to Benjamin Franklin


Popular Science: Astronomy for Everybody

THE NATURAL-HISTORY EMPHASIS with its preference for the simple lessons of everyday experience, and the clinical emphasis with its prejudice against learning and theory, were by no means unmixed blessings. True, they were decidedly democratic. They encouraged the appeal to self-evidence and the American bias against a thinking class. They were friendly to “popular science,” the belief that the greatest works of science ought to be understood by everyone. They fitted well with the ideal of the self-made scientist.

But, in many fields, progress had to build on technical foundations and on the professional learning of the past. The physical sciences, especially astronomy and physics, had acquired this character by the 18th century. In these fundamental sciences, therefore, colonial Americans did not shine: their ideals and hopes led them to exaggeration and confusion. They sometimes lost any sense of what was fundamental, and they ignored distinctions between the basic accomplishments of the theoretical and the peripheral advances of applied science. They often denied or obscured their limitations and claimed the laurels of a Newton or Einstein for colonial Americans whose work at best showed the applied ingenuity of an Edison or Ford. Their limitations are nowhere more obvious than in the men and achievements of which they boasted most loudly.

“America has not yet produced one good poet, one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science.” This common charge, repeated by the French savant Abbé Raynal in 1774, annoyed the colonials, and when Jefferson replied in his Notes on Virginia, he spoke the mind of many Americans. Jefferson admitted the charge against American literature, simply noting that America had not yet had time to produce a Homer or a Shakespeare, but he proudly offered George Washington as a great political and military leader. It was the accusation against American science that especially irritated him. Significantly, he refuted it not by any reference to American achievements in natural history (where Jefferson himself and many others had attained some distinction), but by two examples from the physical sciences, where he was a novice but where presumably Europeans would be most impressed. “In physics,” Jefferson reminded European detractors, “we have produced a Franklin, than whom no one of the present age has made more important discoveries, nor has enriched philosophy with more, or more ingenious solutions of the phaenomena of nature. We have supposed Mr. Rittenhouse second to no astronomer living: that in genius he must be the first, because he is self-taught.”

By examining the accomplishments of these two paragons and of their nearest rivals we can discover the limits of American culture in the colonial age, and we can begin to see the price Americans were paying for their democratic way of thinking.

In 18th-century Europe, the “New Science” of astronomy and physics meant, of course, Newtonian science. When Voltaire visited England in the 1720’s he noted that although few people read Newton, everybody talked about him and attributed to him, like Hercules in the fable, the exploits of all the other heroes. Most Englishmen—even those in the educated classes—who talked of Newton had acquired their knowledge from popular books or public lectures, like Benjamin Martin’s Plain and Familiar introduction to the Newtonian Philosophy … Designed for the use of such Gentlemen and Ladies as would acquire Knowledge of this Science without Mathematical Learning (1751). This was generally even more true among Americans. Newton’s Principia was first published in England in 1687 (although some of his discoveries were made considerably earlier), but the first copy to arrive in the colonies appears to have been that which James Logan acquired in 1708. Even later, copies were rare: Yale College received the second edition (1713) from Sir Isaac himself, and John Winthrop IV owned a copy of the third edition (1726). Most of the Americans who acquired a reputation for astronomical and physical learning—including Franklin and Rittenhouse—seem to have secured their acquaintance with Newton’s works mainly at second-hand.

Perhaps the most important American colonial contribution to Newtonian science was no theoretic insight but rather the observations made through the three-and-one-half-foot telescope which John Winthrop, Jr. had given to Harvard College in 1672. Through that telescope, Thomas Brattle made observations of the Great Comet of 1680 which Newton himself used and acknowledged in his Principia.

After Brattle’s death and during the first half of the 18th century, the most accomplished American astronomer was without doubt John Winthrop IV (1714-1779), descendant of the first Governor of Massachusetts Bay and of a long line of New England scholar-leaders. Winthrop never became a folk-hero and so was not enumerated by Jefferson, but he was a man of broad learning and vast energy and was generally conceded to be the best that America had yet offered in the Newtonian line. His lectures on Comets (1759) and on the Transit of Venus (1769) showed an extraordinary talent for explaining complicated and difficult matters. His notes on sunspots (1739) suggested a connection between them and the aurora borealis not developed by other astronomers for at least another century. His sensible remarks on the causes of earthquakes (1755) revealed him to be a careful, clear-eyed observer. But as a whole Winthrop’s work was not strikingly original; although a brilliant teacher, he added little of his own. When Winthrop was appointed Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard in 1738 he had already offered observations on natural history together with specimens of plants, animals, and minerals to members of the Royal Society in London. Only after his appointment at Harvard did his attention focus sharply on mathematics and astronomy. Still his work continued to reveal the natural-history emphasis. His scientific writings remained descriptive, fragmentary, and topical. Almost without exception they arose from some particular and dramatic natural phenomenon or catastrophe—a lightning stroke, the tremor of an earthquake, the appearance of a comet, a lunar eclipse—which could be observed in America.

Winthrop did not write an epochal book, but he did organize an epoch-making expedition. A transit of Venus across the sun occurred twice during his lifetime; one had not occurred within the preceding century and a quarter, and would not again for over a century. The Newtonian system had described the distances between planets and their distances from the sun only in relative terms, that is, by comparison with the earth’s hypothetical distance from the sun. But observations of the transit of Venus taken from remote points would for the first time make it possible to calculate in miles the actual distance of the earth and hence of the other planets from the sun. Not only would such results be useful for astronomy, but for navigation, surveying, and map-making. Winthrop therefore organized a Harvard expedition to Newfoundland—the first American astronomical expedition and the first scientific expedition sponsored by a college in America. “This Phenomenon, (which has been observed but once before since the Creation of the World),” Governor Francis Bernard explained to the Massachusetts assembly, “will, in all Probability, settle some Questions in Astronomy which may ultimately be very serviceable to Navigation: For which Purpose, those Powers that are interested in Navigation, have thought it their Business to send Mathematicians to different Parts of the World to make Observations.” The Governor prevailed upon Massachusetts to send Winthrop and his two assistants in its Province Sloop to St. John’s, where their observations attracted the attention of scientists throughout the world.

Although Winthrop was a more learned astronomer, the popular symbol of American astronomy in the provincial age was David Rittenhouse (1732-1796). Many Americans shared Jefferson’s judgment that Rittenhouse was “second to no astronomer living,” and in genius the first, because he was self-taught. Rittenhouse had almost no formal education. He began as a clock- and instrument-maker, and for much of his life he owed his living to his clocks. Like Franklin, to whom his contemporaries often compared him, he seemed the embodiment of the American ideal of the undifferentiated man. Troubleshooter of the Revolution, he was engineer to the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, helped to fortify the shores of the Delaware, and devised ways of manufacturing cannon and ammunition. A member of the convention which drew Pennsylvania’s first constitution, Rittenhouse was also first Treasurer of his State and the first Director of the United States Mint. His knowledge of metals and of mathematics aided Jefferson in simplifying the crude and complicated coinage of the new nation. Jefferson held so high an opinion of his scientific talent—“the world has but one Ryttenhouse”—that he regretted Rittenhouse’s political activities, fearing the versatile astronomer might “throw away a Newton upon the occupations of a crown.” His fellow-colonials had made Rittenhouse, as they did Franklin, one of their champions against the giants of Europe. Upon Franklin’s death, Rittenhouse, to whom Franklin had appropriately willed his telescope, succeeded him as President of the American Philosophical Society; when Rittenhouse died only a few years later he was mourned as a national hero. Americans did not realize that by eulogizing Rittenhouse as the Great American Astronomer they were in fact emphasizing the narrowness of colonial science.

The peculiar justification for calling Rittenhouse the Great American Astronomer came from the fact that he was the leading surveyor of his day. To survey small town-lots and farm boundaries in long-settled Europe, arithmetic with a smattering of trigonometry sufficed, but America offered a whole continent to be measured. The property lines of extensive tracts in the wilderness could not be drawn from a large rock or the stump of a familiar tree; they had to be defined by the astronomical dimensions of latitude and longitude. Rittenhouse’s most enduring work was of this especially American kind; for him astronomy was a surveyor’s tool. Between 1764, when he received £6 for helping Mason and Dixon draw the boundary of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, and 1787, when he helped mark the long-disputed line between New York and Massachusetts, he drew boundaries of more than half the original thirteen colonies.

But even such large-scale surveying was no match for the Newtonian flights of mathematical imagination. Rittenhouse did make a few modest, if not entirely successful, efforts to deal with solar space: the 1769 transit of Venus gave him a great opportunity to establish among Europeans the respectability of American science. It was an even more attractive opportunity than the 1761 transit for which Winthrop had organized his Newfoundland expedition. In 1761 the most useful observations could not be made within the settled areas; but the 1769 transit was expected to be visible, weather permitting, all over the American colonies. Arranging the points of observation, providing the apparatus, and coordinating the results were precisely the kind of challenge which American scientists seemed able to meet.

There was widespread, if not always well-informed, interest throughout the colonies. Winthrop himself wrote a lucid little pamphlet explaining to laymen the importance of the spectacle, how to make a smoked glass for watching it, and how to record the crucial time and duration of the transit. In Massachusetts, the principal observations were to be made by Winthrop at the Cambridge observatory. In Philadelphia, where the Rev. William Smith of the College of Philadelphia was the principal organizer, David Rittenhouse held the center of the scientific stage. The Pennsylvania legislature provided £100 for a telescope and another £100 for an observatory on State House Square; arrangements were made for several other observations in the vicinity. Up and down the coast every city prepared for its observations, and amateur astronomers on distant farms readied their home-made instruments. Perhaps never before or since have so many “scientific” calculations depended on such crude apparatus.

At the long-awaited hour on June 3, 1769, observers in the middle colonies had a serene sky, but the drama of the occasion itself produced unforeseen difficulties. To observe the climactic moment through the telescope at his newly-constructed Norriton observatory, Rittenhouse lay on his back with his head supported by assistants. The strain proved too much for him: at the zero hour when Venus touched the sun—the object of months of planning and the moment for which Rittenhouse had been readjusting his specially designed clock—Rittenhouse fainted away. On recovering his senses he could do no more than estimate how much time had elapsed.

Rittenhouse had the major responsibility for collecting and correlating the data from different observation-points. In collaboration with the Rev. William Smith, he made the principal American effort to use the observations for calculating the solar parallax; this was vitally important work because the hour of the transit had made it impossible to see the phenomenon over most of Europe. Figures gathered from the many American observers varied widely, and the crudeness of their observations made any average scientifically worthless. Nevertheless, the final figure produced by Smith and Rittenhouse happily turned out to be close to the presently accepted distance of the earth from the sun. The validity of their result was more the product of good luck than of good science, but America’s and Rittenhouse’s reputation profited none the less. Smith claimed that American observations of the transit “hath done a Credit to our Country which would have been cheaply purchased for twenty times the Sum!”

Whatever exaggeration there may have been in ranking Rittenhouse among the world’s great astronomers, Jefferson told the sober truth when he declared that “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.” Among the colonists Rittenhouse’s principal claim to fame was his ingenious contraption to help teach the public about astronomy, a working model of the solar system, then called an “Orrery.” His machine was not the first of its kind nor even the first one made in America, but it was probably the most intricate and accurate astronomical model that had yet been produced. This was doubly remarkable because of his lack of formal education and his remoteness from the centers of European learning. Though a man of impressive humility, Rittenhouse dared (in his own words) “boldly affirm, that he has not copied the general construction, nor the particular disposition of any of its essential parts, from any Orrery or description whatsoever. Neither has he made use of any number he found in books, for one single wheel, but was at the pains of getting them by calculation himself, having never met with any that were exact enough for his purposes.” If Americans could not add to the theory of solar mechanics, they could at least construct the best working model of the solar system known in their time.

“I would have my Orrery really useful,” Rittenhouse wrote on January 28, 1767, when he first conceived his plan, “by making it capable of informing us, truly, of the astronomical phaenomena for any particular point of time; which, I do not find that any Orrery yet made, can do.” Within a few months he communicated to the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia details which substantially corresponded to the finished product. An elegant upright cabinet would frame a large center panel flanked by two smaller ones. In the middle of the center panel on a four-foot-square vertical sheet of brass was to be displayed a gilded brass ball representing the sun; round this ball would move others of brass or ivory, representing the planets, which rotated in elliptical orbits “their motions to be sometimes swifter, and sometimes slower, as nearly according to the true law of an equable description of areas as is possible.” One of the smaller panels, each of them four feet by about two feet, would exhibitall the appearances of Jupiter and his Satellites—their eclipses, transits, and inclinations; likewise, all the appearances of Saturn, with his ring and satellites.” The other small panel would show “all the phaenomena of the moon, particularly, the exact time, quantity, and duration of her eclipses—and those of the sun, occasioned by her interposition; with a most curious contrivance for exhibiting the appearance of a solar eclipse, at any particular place on the earth.”

When the machine was set in motion by turning a crank, the planets would proceed in their proper revolutions, three dials indicating precisely the hour of the day, the day of the month, and the year at which the planets would appear in these positions—for a period of 5,000 years either forward or backward. Spectacular heavenly phenomena, such as a transit of Venus or an eclipse of the sun or moon, could thus be foretold.

A still more remarkable device was a tiny telescope which could be directed from the earth to any other planet—“then will both the longitude and latitude of that planet be pointed out (by an index and graduated circle) as seen from the earth.” The machine was also to be equipped, according to an original plan, to play “music of the spheres” as God’s handiwork was displayed. The Rev. William Smith, the aggressive provost of the College of Philadelphia who had worked with Rittenhouse during the Transit of Venus, became enthusiastic over the project. Both Smith and Rittenhouse seem to have taken for granted that the completed Orrery would be offered to the College of Philadelphia, where Smith expected it to be a featured attraction. But Dr. John Witherspoon, who had just recently arrived from Scotland to become president of The College of New Jersey (later called Princeton), hurried over to Rittenhouse’s workshop in Norriton and persuaded him to sell his Orrery for £300 to the New Jersey institution. The ambitious Rev. Smith declared that he “never met with greater mortification” than when he read in The Pennsylvania Gazette of April 26, 1770, three days after Witherspoon’s successful visit to Rittenhouse, that the mechanical masterpiece of the age was lost to his college at Philadelphia. And especially that Rittenhouse “should think so little of his noble invention, as to consent to let it go to a village”!

Rittenhouse sought to mollify Smith (who had already agreed to purchase the second Orrery) by arranging for the first demonstration of the Princeton machine to take place at Smith’s College of Philadelphia. With a ready eye for public relations, Smith announced a series of fourteen lectures during March and April 1771, climaxing in a lecture-demonstration by Rittenhouse himself. The Provincial Assembly of Pennsylvania so warmly admired the machine that they appropriated £300 “as a Testimony of the high Sense which this House entertains of his Mathematical Genius and Mechanical Abilities in constructing the said Orrery,” and appointed a committee to arrange for Rittenhouse to construct a third (and, of course, larger) one.

Many Americans welcomed the Orrery as reassuring evidence that the New World could now compete with the scientific progress of the Old. When the American Philosophical Society for Useful Knowledge published its first volume of Transactions in 1771, the first section was entitled “Mathematical and Astronomical Papers” and the first paper was Rittenhouse’s plan for his Orrery. “As this is an American Production, and much more complete than any Thing of the Kind ever made in Europe,” The Pennsylvania Gazette (April 26, 1770) said in the first public announcement of the Orrery, “it must give great Pleasure to every Lover of his Country, to see her rising to Fame in the sublimest Sciences, as well as every Improvement in the Arts.” When Witherspoon prepared a brochure to attract students to Princeton from the West Indies, he took care to explain that students would be given their Astronomy lessons “upon the Orrery, lately invented and constructed by David Rittenhouse, Esq., which is reckoned by the best judges the most excellent in its kind of any ever yet produced.” The newly designed seal of the University of Pennsylvania, adopted in 1782, was inscribed only with the date and the name of the institution and otherwise consisted entirely of a view of the Rittenhouse Orrery. Jefferson’s bill for reforming the College of William & Mary in 1779 specifically provided that the college should purchase such a machine—“the mechanical representation, or model of the solar system, conceived and executed by that greatest of astronomers, David Ryttenhouse”—and that it “be called by the name of the Ryttenhouse.” At his second meeting of the American Philosophical Society, Jefferson offered a motion which was unanimously agreed to, that the Society commission an Orrery to be presented to the King of France, not only to show American gratitude to an ally during the Revolution but also to refute the European detractors of American culture. The Rev. James Madison wrote to Jefferson enthusiastically endorsing “an excellent, as well as a very short Method of confuting those Flimsy Theorists, as you justly call them, by sending both Rittenhouse and his Orrery to Europe.”

Neither Rittenhouse nor “the Rittenhouse” ever reached Europe, but many Americans and some friendly Europeans were now more hopeful for an American culture which could produce them.

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