Historical Notes: These operating models of the solar system demonstrated the diurnal and annual motion of the planets and their satellites and were dramatic visual expressions of the rational order of nature's laws in a Newtonian universe.
Like most of his countrymen, Jefferson marveled at the "amazing mechanical representation of the solar system" he encountered at the College of Philadelphia in 1775. The orrery recently made David Rittenhouse performed with unparalleled precision and complexity. Wishing to send proof of American genius to the rest of the world, Jefferson proposed that the American Philosophical Society commission one of Rittenhouse's orreries for presentation to the king of France.
Jefferson may have had an orrery representing just the earth and the moon by 1793, when a packing list prepared by his French butler included "une machine qui est la boule du monde." By the end of that year he received from William Jones a "New Manual orrery and Planetarium," costing three guineas. A later reference suggests that Jefferson may have had it in his cabinet at the President's House.
Primary Source References
1778 July 19. (Jefferson to David Rittenhouse). "How far the interest of literature may have suffered by the injury or removal of the Orrery (as it is miscalled) the publick libraries, your papers and implements, are doubt which still excite anxiety...The amazing mechanical representation of the solar system which you conceived and executed, has never been surpassed by any but the work of which it is a copy."
1779. (Bill Number 80). "And that this commonwealth may be be without so great an ornament, nor its youth such an help towards attaining astronomical science, as the mechanical representation, or model of the solar system, conceived and executed by that greatest of astronomers, David Rittenhouse; Be it further enacted that DR should be commissioned to provide College of William and Mary one of the said models, to be called by the name of the Ryttenhouse..."
1783 December 23. "Rittenh's orrery for k. of Fr."
1786 January 3. (Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson). "What is become of the Lunarium for the King?"
1786 August 14. (Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson). "Could you prevail on him [Rittenhouse] to answer this also, When will the Lunarium be done?"
1786 December 9. (Francis Hopkinson to Jefferson). "The Lunarium is still in Contemplation, and will I believe, be executed some Time or other. The particular Aera may be within the Ken of inspired Prophecy, but is certainly not within the Reach of Astronomical Calculation."
1789 January 2. (William Jones to Jefferson). "I have made some small additions to my Portable Orrery the Description of which I have enclosed as a small present to you."
1792 December 26. (Jefferson to John James). "By a catalogue of instruments and prices which you gave me when in London in 1785. I observe you make and sell for two guineas and a half a New Manual orrery and Planetarium, described in your pamphlet printed in 1784. If you will be so good as to pack one of these properly for me and deliver it to Mr. Alexander Donald of the house of Donald & Burton, Angel court, Throckmorton street, he will receive and pay you for it on slight of this letter, which will be necessary as I have not written to him on the subject."
1793 March 9. (William & Samuel to Jefferson). "We...have accordingly sent herewith, one of the best kind of our Portable orreries. The price of the one sent is 3 Guineas, the additional half guinea is on account of its having a stand, and the plates under the earth and moon more durable, and not so liable to be loose dirty, and useless after a little while, as those made of paper."
1793 April 4. (Alexander Donald to Jefferson). "The Orrery you ordered from Jones is gne by the Camilla, Service into James River, and I trust it will get safe to hand..."<ref<Ibid, 25:485.</ref>
1793 September 10. (Jefferson to David M. Randolph). "I learn from Mr. Randolph that there is a box from England lodged for me in the custom-house at Bermuda. I presume it contains a small orrery, as I know that such an one has been sent out for me. The cost was 2 1/2 or 3. guineas, I do not remember which, and my letters are packed so that I cannot turn to the one mentioning this."
1793 November 14. (Jefferson to Patrick Hart). "Understanding that there was a box containing an Orrery for me at the Custom-house at the Hundred, I had asked the favor of Mr. David Randolph to take it out and pay the duty, which I suppose small, as the machine cost but about 2½ guineas. He writes me word that before he received my letter, you had been so kind as to liberate it from the custom house, with a view of sending it on to me. The object of this letter is to return you many thanks for this kind attention, and instead of forwarding it to me here, to ask you to be so good as to deliver it to Mr. Randolph my son in law, to be forwarded to my own house in Albemarle where I shall be within a few weeks."
1793 December 1. (Patrick Hart to Jefferson). "I shall forward the Orrery by the Boats for Milton which is now down to Mr. John Watson with directions to deliver it to Mr. Randolph."
1807 July 23. (William Small to Jefferson). "Haveing [sic] heard of the telescope, Orrery &c. being at the Navy office prior..."
↑ Petit's List of Packages sent to Richmond, May 12, 1793, in ibid., 26:20.
↑ Jefferson to John Jones, December 26, 1792, in ibid., 24:790; W. and S. Jones to Jefferson, London, March 9, 1793, in ibid., 25:341. Recipient coy available online from the Library of Congress; Patrick Hart to Jefferson, Richmond, December 1, 1793, in ibid., 27:467. Recipient copy available online from the Library of Congress.