1793 Orrery, comprising a planetarium and telurium, stand and fitted case.

Artist/Maker: William Jones (1763-1831)

Created: c. 1790

Origin/Purchase: London

Materials: brass, steel, ivory, paint, paper, mahogany, oak

Dimensions: Overall height of stand: 6 11/16 in.; Overall height with planetarium: 10 1/2 in.; Height of planetarium: 3 13/16 in.

Location: Library

Owner: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Accession Number: 1996-2a/k

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.[1] The orrery recently made by 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.[2]

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."[3] By the end of that year he received from William Jones a "New Manual orrery and Planetarium," costing three guineas.[4] A later reference suggests that Jefferson may have had it in his cabinet at the President's House.[5]

- Text from Stein, Worlds, 351

AnchorPrimary Source References

1778 July 19. (Jefferson to David Rittenhouse). "How far the interests 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 doubts 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."[6]

1779 June 18. (Bill Number 80). "And that this commonwealth may not 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 Ryttenhouse; Be it further enacted, that ... David Ryttenhouse [shall] ... make and erect in the said College of William and Mary, and for its use, one of the said models, to be called by the name of the Ryttenhouse ...."[7]

1783 December 23. (Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson). "Rittenh's orrery for k. of Fr."[8]

1786 January 3. (Jefferson to Hopkinson). "What is become of the Lunarium for the king?"[9]

1786 August 14. (Jefferson to Hopkinson). "Could you prevail on him [Rittenhouse] to answer this also, When will the Lunarium be done?"[10]

1786 December 9. (Hopkinson to Jefferson). "The Lunarium is still in Contemplation, and will I believe, be executed some Time or other. The particular Æra  may be within the Ken of inspired Prophecy, but is certainly not within the Reach of Astronomical Calculation."[11]

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."[12]

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 recieve and pay you for it on sight of this letter, which will be necessary as I have not written to him on the subject."[13]

1793 March 9. (William & Samuel Jones 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."[14]

1793 April 4. (Alexander Donald to Jefferson). "The Orrery you ordered from Jones is gone by the Camilla, Service into James River, and I trust it will get safe to hand ...."[15]

1793 September 8. (Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "Tell Mr. Randolph that the box for me in the Custom house at Bermuda must be a small Orrery, cost 2 ½ or 3 guineas."[16]

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 2½ or 3. guineas, I do not remember which, and my letters are packed so that I cannot turn to the one mentioning this."[17]

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."[18]

1793 December 1. (Hart to Jefferson). "I shall forward the Orrery by the Boat [from?] Milton which is now down to Mr. John Watson with directions to deliver it to Mr. Randolph."[19]

1807 July 23. (William Small to Jefferson). "[H]aving heard of the Telescope, Orrery &c being at the Navy office prior ...."[20]

Further Sources


  1. ^ Jefferson to David Rittenhouse, July 19, 1778, in PTJ, 2:202-03. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson, December 23, 1783, in PTJ, 6:418-19. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  3. ^ Adrien Petit's List of Packages sent to Richmond, [ca. May 12, 1793], in PTJ, 26:20. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  4. ^ Jefferson to John Jones, December 26, 1792, in PTJ, 24:790 (transcription available at Founders Online); W. and S. Jones to Jefferson, March 9, 1793, in PTJ, 25:341 (transcription available at Founders Online); Patrick Hart to Jefferson, December 1, 1793, in PTJ, 27:467 (transcription available at Founders Online).
  5. ^ William Small to Jefferson, July 23, 1807, Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  6. ^ PTJ, 2:202-03. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  7. ^ PTJ, 2:541. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  8. ^ PTJ, 6:418. Transcription available at Founders Online. This orrery was never made.
  9. ^ PTJ, 9:149. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  10. ^ PTJ, 10:250. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  11. ^ PTJ, 10:587. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  12. ^ PTJ, 14:411. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  13. ^ PTJ, 24:790. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  14. ^ PTJ, 25:341. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  15. ^ PTJ, 27:64. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  16. ^ PTJ, 27:64. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  17. ^ PTJ, 27:85. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  18. ^ PTJ, 27:374. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  19. ^ PTJ, 27:467. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  20. ^ Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society. Transcription available at Founders Online. William Small, at the Navy Yard, made adjustments to several of Jefferson's mathematical instruments in 1806 and 1807.