David Rittenhouse. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. Photography by Edward Owen.

Artist/Maker: Edward Savage (1761-1817), engraver, after Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827)

Created: 1796

Origin/Purchase: Philadelphia

Materials: mezzotint

Dimensions: paper: 54.8 × 39.4 (21 9/16 × 15 1/2 in.)

Location: Parlor

Provenance: copy purchased by Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 2003

Historical Notes: On the occasion of Jefferson's departure from Philadelphia in 1793, David Rittenhouse wrote:

I shall ever remember with pleasure, whilst memory continues to perform its office, that I have counted the name of Mr: Jefferson in the very short list of my friends.[1]

More than fifteen years earlier, Jefferson met the American-born inventor and astronomer in Philadelphia, where both were attending the Continental Congress.[2] Rittenhouse was a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly and President of the American Philosophical Society. Both Jefferson and Rittenhouse were devoted to science. Jefferson displayed a print of Rittenhouse in Monticello's Parlor with his collection of American worthies.[3]

Rittenhouse's reputation as a scientist was principally linked to his clockwork-driven orrery, a model that showed the solar system. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson used Rittenhouse's achievements to counter the Abbe Raynal's contention that America "has not yet produced ... one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science."[4]

We have supposed Mr. Rittenhouse second to no astronomer living: that in genius he must be the first, because he is self-taught. 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.[5]

Rittenhouse and Jefferson's correspondence centered on scientific pursuits and the instruments necessary for them. Jefferson sent Rittenhouse his report on the 1778 eclipse and requested an astronomical clock for future observations.[6] Among the instruments that Jefferson bought from Rittenhouse were a universal equatorial, made by the Englishman Jesse Ramsden, an odometer, and a camera obscura.[7]

After Rittenhouse's death in 1796, Jefferson was elected to succeed him as president of the American Philosophical Society. In his letter of acceptance to the Society, he praised the former president: "Genius, science, modesty, purity of morals, simplicity of manners, marked him as one of nature’s best samples of the perfection she can cover under the human form."[8]

- Text from Stein, Worlds, 174-75Anchor

Further Sources


  1. ^ Rittenhouse to Jefferson, January 11, 1793, in PTJ, 25:46. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ Silvio A. Bedini, Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 78.
  3. ^ Jefferson's Catalogue of Paintings &c., Accession #2958-bThe Thomas Jefferson PapersSpecial Collections, University of Virginia Library. For a transcription of Jefferson's catalogue, see Seymour Howard, "Thomas Jefferson's Art Gallery for Monticello," The Art Bulletin 59, no. 4 (1977): 583-600. Jefferson's copy of the Rittenhouse print is unlocated.
  4. ^ Notes, ed. Peden, 64.
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Jefferson to Rittenhouse, July 19, 1778, in PTJ, 2:202-03. Transcription available at Founders Online. Rittenhouse was unable to complete the clock, and it was more than thirty years before Jefferson finally acquired one from Thomas Voight.
  7. ^ Bedini, Statesman of Science, 229, 247, 374.
  8. ^ Jefferson to the American Philosophical Society, January 28, 1797, in PTJ, 29:254. Transcription available at Founders Online.