Rittenhouse Orrery, The,

Rittenhouse Orrery, The, one of Princeton's oldest instruments for the teaching of science, is on display in the lobby of Peyton Hall. Devised to represent the motions of the planets about the sun, orreries were regarded as essential teaching equipment of eighteenth-century lecturers on ``natural philosophy.'' They derived their name from the Earl of Orrery, for whom one of the most famous was built in England about 1713.

Princeton's Rittenhouse Orrery is the first of two remarkably accurate orreries made by the Pennsylvania clockmaker and self-educated astronomer, David Rittenhouse. He made the second one for the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania. Princeton's orrery was purchased by President Witherspoon and installed in Nassau Hall in 1771. It was damaged during the Revolution and later repaired. It was in active use for about a half-century; thereafter it became merely a curiosity and did not come to attention again until it was exhibited at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. Then it disappeared and was thought permanently lost until it was discovered, in 1948, still crated, in the basement of McCosh Hall. Through the generosity of Bernard Peyton '17, it was once more restored and given a place of honor in Firestone Library until Peyton Hall was built. In the restoration one concession was made to the twentieth century: electric motors were added to provide smooth motive power, thus eliminating the damage to the intricate wheelwork, which in earlier days resulted from hasty and irregular turning of the crank that set the orrery in motion.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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