"Looking Up: David Rittenhouse, a patriot and an astronomer"
July 1st, 2010
Helena Daily World
July 1st, 2010
Helena Daily World
As colonial America fought for their freedom from tyranny from the king of England 238 years ago, among the patriots was David Rittenhouse, who had a passion for the night sky.
The science of astronomy was advancing in the 1700s as the so-called Period of Enlightenment was taking hold in Europe. This school of thought advocated reason as the basis for legitimacy and authority, and was buoyed by the brazen quest for inalienable rights of the populace that forged the American Revolution.
Among its adherents was Rittenhouse (1732-1796) who has been hailed as a great astronomer, inventor and mathematician. He was among the first in America to build a telescope, and he became professor of astronomy at the University of the State of Pennsylvania (later known as the University of Pennsylvania), serving there from 1779 to 1782.
Born near Philadelphia, Rittenhouse was completely self-educated. He became a clock-maker and designed two orreries, scale model of the solar system, which he donated to Rutgers University in New Jersey.
The school in return invited him there to study, where he obtained a degree in philosophy.
Rittenhouse was also a surveyor, and he helped establish boundaries for several states.
In 1769, he made important observations of a rare transit of Venus across the face of the sun.
He was able to determine from the transit that the planet has an atmosphere.
From 1777 to 1789, Rittenhouse was treasurer of Pennsylvania, and later with the recommendation of President George Washington, he became the first director of the U.S. Mint.
He had the admiration of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, among other patriots. In 1775, he addressed the American Philosophical Society on the history of astronomy. During this speech, Rittenhouse linked the structure of nature to the cause of liberty and self-government, and he also condemned slavery. The society was so impressed that they delivered copies of the speech to the delegates of the Second Continental Congress in 1776.
The story of the U.S. flag, which in part is made up of a field of stars, is thought by some to have some connection to Rittenhouse. One of his admirers and colleague Francis Hopkinson served on the Navy board that wrote the Flag Act of 1977. This defined the American flag and referred to the field of stars on a background of blue as a “new constellation.” This has been conjectured to be a direct tribute to Rittenhouse.
As we view the Fourth of July fireworks and sing the "Star Spangled Banner," Americans are called to be inspired by the greatness of their country, its heritage and founding ideals. The view of the starry night has inspired people since our ancestors first took notice; we have translated that feeling of awe to our love for our nation. Wherever we are in the world, no matter our culture or language, we have the starry night as part of what we have in common and hold dear. Likewise, together as a nation we stand strong, holding what we have in common and use the stars that shine over all our land, as part of what symbolizes that concord.
The moon reaches last quarter on the Fourth of July.
Colonial America--David Rittenhouse astronomer