David Rittenhouse 1732-1796
Rittenhouse was the best-known astronomer in America, but was neither college-educated nor well-to-do. Rather, he was an artisan, a clock-and mathematical-instrument maker, who was encouraged by his contemporaries to follow his inclination for astronomy. Rittenhouse was famed for his telescopes, for the elaborate orreries that he made for the College of New Jersey (Princeton) and the College of Philadelphia, and for his careful observations of the 1769 transit of Venus from his observatory outside of Philadelphia.
After Benjamin Franklin's death in 1790, Rittenhouse succeeded him as president of the American Philosophical Society. The society commissioned this portrait from Charles Willson Peale in 1791. Rittenhouse gestures toward a diagram of a comet and its orbit, a reference to a subject that had fascinated him for decades; as he noted in 1775, the "astronomy of comets is still in its infancy [for want of the ability to predict their return]. . . .Whether their business be to repair or to destroy, whether they are worlds yet in formation or once habitable worlds in ruins . . . , we know not." Peale associated Rittenhouse with Franklin by portraying him in a banyan identical to the costume in Peale's 1789 portrait of Franklin painted for the society. They were connected through this costume with the ideal of the studious intellectual, attired in an informal robe for work in his study.
Title image: Terrestrial globe signed by J. & W. Cary, Courtesy Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress/ Washington, D.C.