David Rittenhouse Papers


Date: 1774-1932 | Size: 0.25 Linear feet


David Rittenhouse (1732-1796) was one of the most prominent American men of science of the 18th Century. A skilled instrument maker, Rittenhouse was the an astronomer, playing a major role in recording the 1769 Transit of Venus, among many accomplishments. Rittenhouse also conducted important survey work for the state of Pennsylvania, establishing the state's western border, as well as overseeing the completion of the Mason-Dixon survey. In addition to his scientific endeavors, Rittenhouse's work for American independence places him among the important founding fathers. Subordinating his scientific interests for the greater good of Pennsylvania during the American Revolution, Rittenhouse served as a member of both the Pennsylvania Assembly and the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, and held powerful positions on the Pennsylvania Council of Safety and the subsequent Committee on Safety. Rittenhouse also served as the first director of the United States' Mint, at the behest of President George Washington. Rittenhouse was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1768 and played a major role in placing the Society on the scientific map. He held many positions in the Society, including serving as its President from 1791 until his death in 1796. The Rittenhouse papers span 1774 to 1932, and consist of 61 items, over 0.25 linear feet. The collection is comprised mainly of correspondence, but also includes receipts, genealogies and broadsides.

Background note

Born in 1732, the son of a farmer in Germantown (now part of Philadelphia), Pennsylvania, David Rittenhouse was a leading figure in early American science and one of the most influential Pennsylvanians of the 18th Century. Largely self-educated, Rittenhouse had an early interest in mathematics and began building various types of scientific and mechanical devices, including clocks, at a young age. By age nineteen, Rittenhouse had opened a clock and scientific instrument shop at his father's West Norriton Township farm, and would continue to produce many pioneering and sought after scientific instruments, including two orreries constructed for the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). In addition to his instrument making, Rittenhouse was an accomplished astronomer and surveyor, as well as an active and influential patriot. Rittenhouse was elected to the American Philosophical Society on January 1, 1768 and would hold many offices: Secretary (1771), Librarian (1772), Curator (1772-1776), Vice President (1779-1783 and 1787-1791), Councilor (1783-1789) and President (January 7, 1791-June 26, 1796). In fact, a paper authored by Rittenhouse regarding his orreries was the first scientific paper read at the Society, in 1768.

On June 3, 1769, Rittenhouse was a key participant in the observation of the Transit of Venus across the sun. Rittenhouse built several instruments for the event, and observed the Transit from an observatory he had constructed at his Norriton farm. Rittenhouse, along with compatriots William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia and John Lukens, Surveyor-General of Pennsylvania, manned three telescopes for the event, but when the time came to begin the observations, an ill Rittenhouse collapsed, only recovering a third of the way into the Transit.

Using the calculations determined by Rittenhouse after the observation, Smith wrote a report on the event and submitted it, along with a rival report written by John Ewing, to the July 20, 1769 meeting of the American Philosophical Society. Smith, repeatedly citing Rittenhouse's contributions, successfully argued for the report's inclusion in the first volume of the Society's Transactions. Also included in the volume were Rittenhouse's observations of what became known as Lexell's Comet. Through the 1760s, Rittenhouse found himself intellectually isolated due to his residence on the family farm he had inherited from his father in Norriton. Consequently, in the fall of 1770, after the harvest on the farm, Rittenhouse moved with his wife and daughters, then three and one, into the city of Philadelphia, providing him with ready access to his colleagues in astronomy and mathematics. Renting a house at Seventh and Arch (then Mulberry) Streets, Rittenhouse continued his work making instruments, including compasses, levels, mercury thermometers and barometers, as well as eyeglasses. It was in 1771, at his home workshop, that Rittenhouse completed the two orreries for the Colleges of New Jersey and Philadelphia. These instruments were designed to illustrate the position and motion of the planets and their satellites, relative to each other and, according to Rittenhouse, his orreries could project these positions as far as 5000 years into the future. Though never paid in full for his work on the orreries, he received a £300 award from the government of Pennsylvania for his efforts.

Rittenhouse married Eleanor Coulston on February 20, 1766, and the couple had two daughters, Elizabeth and Ester. Eleanor, however, died on February 23, 1771, just after the move to Philadelphia, from complications two days after the birth of the couple's third child, who also died. Rittenhouse married a second time, on December 31, 1772, to Hannah Jacobs. Rittenhouse met with misfortune again in 1773, when their only child died at birth.

Using his talent in instrument making, as well as astronomy and mathematics, Rittenhouse became an active and accomplished surveyor, both before and after the Revolution. In 1769, Rittenhouse assisted in establishing the boundary between New York and New Jersey, and just three years later, in September 1772, Rittenhouse was appointed by the Pennsylvania Assembly to lead a commission tasked with determining the feasibility of building a canal from the Schuylkill River westward to the Susquehanna River. Upon the completion of the survey in 1773, Rittenhouse and his company had determined that not only was a canal between the Schuylkill and the Susquehanna possible, but also that another canal, between the Schuylkill eastward to the Lehigh River, was practicable as well. Work was not started on the canal until the 1780s In response to Connecticut's annexation of land in the Wyoming Valley in northeastern Pennsylvania, In 1774 Rittenhouse, along with Captain Samuel Holland of New York, was tasked with establishing the northern boundary of Pennsylvania. On the return trip to Philadelphia, Rittenhouse surveyed the Delaware River, a task he completed the following spring.

Thanks to his work on various surveying projects, as well as his politically connected friends, Rittenhouse was appointed to the office of City Surveyor of Philadelphia in 1774, his first political post. The position was fleeting, however, due to the coming of the Revolution, when a majority of Rittenhouse's scientific work lost precedence to his participation in the political affairs of Pennsylvania. Rittenhouse firmly believed in American independence and associated himself with the radical patriot movement. Selected by the Pennsylvania Assembly for service on the Committee on Safety in June 1775, Rittenhouse and other dignitaries viewed the row galleys constructed for the defense of the Delaware River in September of that year. Just one month later, Rittenhouse was appointed engineer of the Committee on Safety and, in November, was charged with surveying the Delaware River, paying special attention to its depth and the nature of its shoreline, in order to determine the best way to fortify the river against British attack.

The Committee also asked Rittenhouse to oversee the construction of heavy cannon and the production of saltpeter, a critical component of gunpowder. Though operating outside of his expertise, Rittenhouse eventually became an expert on explosives and ballistics, proposing such improvements as rifling heavy cannon (the improvement could not be implemented during the War).

On March 2, 1776, Rittenhouse was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly to fill Benjamin Franklin's open seat, and served on the Assembly's Committee on Safety. On July 8 of that year, Rittenhouse was elected to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention. Rittenhouse, a firm believer in elective and representative government, allied himself with the radical members of the Convention. Rittenhouse proved himself capable of restraining his beliefs for the good of Pennsylvania, particularly when he attempted to limit punishments against counterfeiters and British Loyalists (the Convention dismissed his efforts and eventually adopted much harsher punishments than Rittenhouse advocated.). Although records of his exact contributions to the Convention are unclear, Rittenhouse undoubtedly played an active role in formulating the Pennsylvania constitution.

When the Constitutional Convention established a Council of Safety to supersede the Committee on Safety, Rittenhouse was appointed to the new body to oversee work on the defenses of Pennsylvania, as well the organization and outfiting of troops. Throughout the tumultuous year of 1776, the Council of Safety proved to be the only government body capable of effectively responding to the demands of the war, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Rittenhouse .

When the Assembly met in first weeks of 1777, financial difficulties were at the forefront of debate, and on January 14, Rittenhouse was unanimously selected as state treasurer, and took office on January 18. Rittenhouse came to office at a time when few Pennsylvanians felt compelled to pay taxes. He would consistently wrestle with the inability to collect what was owed to the Commonwealth and would struggle to balance Pennsylvania's finances for many years to come. Rittenhouse would serve as state treasurer until 1789, but even after taking responsibility for the Commonwealth's finances, Rittenhouse maintained his position on the Council of Safety. In 1777, when the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania abolished the Council of Safety and created a Board of War in its stead, Rittenhouse was appointed to the Board. In addition to the procurement and supply duties of the Council the Board interviewed suspected Loyalists, forcing those brought before them to take an oath of allegiance or face imprisonment.

When the British occupied Philadelphia in September of 1777, Rittenhouse and the other members of the government fled the city, with Rittenhouse eventually taking refuge in Lancaster. When the British evacuated the city in June of the following year, Rittenhouse returned to Philadelphia and resumed his governmental duties, both at the treasury and on the newly reconstituted Council of Safety. With the threat of British aggression against Philadelphia fading, Rittenhouse turned his attention to work outside of the government. Although Rittenhouse was on the Board of Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania in 1779, and was awarded a professorship in astronomy in 1780, academics was not a major part of his life. Prior to the end of the Revolution, Rittenhouse was selected to survey the banks of the Susquehanna River to determine the best location for a new town, concluding that the best location for a town was at Harris's Ferry. Based upon their recommendations, the town of Harrisburg was incorporated on the banks of the Susquehanna, and would subsequently become Pennsylvania's capital.

Following the Treaty of Paris of 1783, Rittenhouse again became involved in surveying the boundaries of Pennsylvania. In 1784, Rittenhouse was called upon to survey and establish the western boundary of Pennsylvania five degrees of longitude west of the Delaware River. Astoundingly, Rittenhouse's projections proved to be accurate to within 23 feet of modern measurements. After the establishment of the western boundary, Rittenhouse was responsible, along with surveyor Andrew Ellicott, for the completion of the final twenty miles of the Mason-Dixon survey in 1784, fixing the southern boundary of Pennsylvania with state of Delaware. In 1785, Rittenhouse undertook his final major surveying project, when he assisted in establishing the boundary between New York and Massachusetts.

Starting in the late 1780s, Rittenhouse began to publish works outside of astronomy and surveying, including works on magnetism (1786) and mathematics (1793 and 1795). On January 1, 1791, Rittenhouse became the second president of the American Philosophical Society, replacing the late Benjamin Franklin, a position he would hold until his death.

On April 14, 1792, President George Washington appointed Rittenhouse the first director of the United States Mint. While Rittenhouse protested his appointment, citing poor health, he accepted the position on July 1, immediately delving into the business of obtaining the men, materials and buildings the Mint would require. President Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson wholly and enthusiastically supported Rittenhouse's efforts and by 1794 production at the Mint reached a million copper cents and half-cents, up from 255,900 pieces the year before.

The Mint soon ran into difficulties, however, as the cost of copper became excessive, and by 1795, it cost several cents to mint a one cent coin. Beginning in 1794, the House of Representatives opened an investigation of the Mint, citing the disproportionate cost of minting coins, as well as charges that coinage was failing to reach the distant parts of the country and, therefore, only benefitted the Philadelphia region. By the conclusion of the investigation, however, Rittenhouse was exonerated of all wrongdoing. Rittenhouse, again citing his poor health, resigned from the mint on June 30, 1795.

Coincidentally with his resignation from the Mint, Rittenhouse became the second of two Americans elected to the Royal Society between the end of the Revolution and 1800. While he intended his retirement to free up time for scientific pursuits, Rittenhouse's health proved uncooperative. On June 22 1796, Rittenhouse was struck with fever and stomach pain, diagnosed by his nephew, Benjamin Smith Barton, as cholera. His condition steadily worsened and in the early morning hours of the 26th, Rittenhouse died. His body was interred under the floor of the observatory of his Norriton farm. The American Philosophical Society arranged a memorial service for Rittenhouse, at Philadelphia, on December 17, 1796, which was attended by George and Martha Washington, among many other dignitaries. Society member Benjamin Rush delivered the eulogy. John Adams provided perhaps the best summation of Rittenhouse's accomplishments in an 1818 letter to Thomas Jefferson when he wrote, "Rittenhouse was a virtuous and amiable man, an exquisite mechanician, master of the astronomy known in his time, an expert mathematician, a patient calculator of numbers."

Works Referenced:

Ford, Edward. David Rittenhouse: Astronomer-Patriot 1732-1796. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1946. Hindle, Brooke. David Rittenhouse. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Scope and content

The David Rittenhouse papers cover from 1774 to 1932, and consist of 61 items, spanning 0.25 linear feet. The items from the 20th century are memorial materials commemorating various members of the Rittenhouse, Abbot and Sergeant families. A majority of the collection consists of correspondence, mainly between Rittenhouse and his family members, but also correspondence between Rittenhouse and various politicians and men of science. Also included are receipts, broadsides and two genealogies, one of the Rittenhouse family and one of the family of Rittenhouse's son-in-law, Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant. The bulk of the collection was acquired in 1970, with one additional letter purchased in 2008.

Digital objects note

This collection contains digital materials that are available in the APS Digital Library. Links to these materials are provided with context in the inventory of this finding aid. A general listing of digital objects may also be found here.

Collection Information

Physical description

0.25 Linear Feet.


Purchased from Sessler, Freeman (no. 281; $350.00) March 1, 1970. October 1793 letter acquired at auction from the Jay Snider Collection, 2008.

Preferred citation

Cite as: David Rittenhouse Papers, American Philosophical Society.

Processing information

Processed by Adam Najarian, 2010.

Early American History Note

The David Rittenhouse Collection contains a variety of Rittenhouse-related documents from the Revolutionary era. Receipts, correspondence, and records of official government business compose much of it. A full inventory of the collection and its content is available on MOLE.

Indexing Terms

Family Name(s)

  • Barton family.
  • Rittenhouse family.


  • Broadsides.
  • Business Records and Accounts
  • Genealogies.
  • General Correspondence
  • Official Government Documents and Records

Personal Name(s)

  • Abbott, Fanny D.
  • Barton, Benjamin Smith, 1766-1815
  • Barton, Thomas Pennant, 1803-1869
  • Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796


  • American Revolution
  • Colonial Politics
  • Government Affairs
  • Pennsylvania History
  • Philadelphia History

Detailed Inventory

Pennsylvania Gazette extract. On the death of Mrs. Esther Barton
1774 June 291 itembox 1
Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
To John Page
1777 August 181 itembox 1

Typed copy.

General physical description: 1 item

Muhlenberg, Frederick Augustus Conrad, 1750-1801.
To David Rittenhouse
1780 December 151 itembox 1
Stiles, Ezra, 1727-1795.
To David Rittenhouse
1781 November 161 itembox 1
Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
Receipt to William Henry, Treasurer of Lancaster County
1782 April1 itembox 1

Presented by William Logan Fox, July 1, 1965 (tipped in, originally, in: David Rittenhouse. An Oration, Delivered... Before the American Philosophical Society... Philadelphia: Printed by John Dunlap, in Market-Street. 1775).

General physical description: 1 item

Washington, George (1732-1799).
To David Rittenhouse
1783 February 161 itembox 1

Typed copy.

General physical description: 1 item

Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
To Speaker of Assembly
1783 September 261 itembox 1
Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
To Simeon De Witt
1786 February 71 itembox 1
Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
To Sam. Meredith
1786 May 291 itembox 1
Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
Receipt to Reuben Haines, for taxes
1787 April 161 itembox 1
Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
Receipt to Samuel Merefith, for taxes
1788 January 191 itembox 1
Fox, Edward.
To David Rittenhouse
1789 March 91 itembox 1
Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
To Miss Betsey Rittenhouse
1789 July 81 itembox 1
Sergeant, John, 1779-1852.
To Mrs. Sergeant
1789 September 161 itembox 1
Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
To Gen. Schuyler
1791 February 261 itembox 1
To Ralph Izard
1791 December 21 box 1

Other Descriptive Information: unlocated 2/2010.

Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
Rough calculations
[1791-1793]6 itemsbox 1
Dobson, Thomas, 1751-1823.
Receipt to David Rittenhouse for a set of Hopkinson's works
1792 August 61 itembox 1
Astronomical calculations
1792 box 1

Other Descriptive Information: Gift of Ellen Lehman, 2019

Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
To Hannah Rittenhouse
1793 October 221 itembox 1
Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
To the Treasurer of the Mint
1795 May 61 itembox 1

Mint of the U.S., [Philadelphia], 1 p. and endorsement. A.D.S. Order to pay $26,810.45.5 to Samuel Vincent, agent for the Bank of Maryland. Presented to the A.P.S. by Mrs. William Stansfield, April 3, 1932. Previously in: Misc. Manuscripts Collection

General physical description: 1 item

Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
To the Treasurer of the Mint
1795 June 81 itembox 1
Rittenhouse, David, 1732-1796.
To Mrs. Elizabeth Sergeant
1795 August 171 itembox 1
To the Memory of the Late Dr. Rittenhouse, broadside
[1796]1 itembox 1
Madison, James, 1751-1836.
To David Rittenhouse
1779 November1 itembox 1

General physical description: 1 item

Separated material: Located in Thomas Jefferson Papers, Mss B J35, in Misc. box.

Sussex Lodge, No. 7... Centenary of Freemasonry on the St. Croix... broadside
1909 December 141 itembox 1
First Congregational Church, Stockbridge, Mass., Program for Service, broadside
1916 August 131 itembox 1
David Rittenhouse Bicentennial Materials, broadsides
19329 itemsbox 1

General physical description: 9 items

Access digital object:

Rittenhouse, H..
To "Dear Betsey"
September 221 itembox 1
Concerning Benjamin Smith Barton
undated1 itembox 1
Rittenhouse family genealogy
undated12 itemsbox 1
Sergeant family genealogy
undated9 itemsbox 1