The Rittenhouse Orrery

Discussion in 'Horological Books' started by John Nagle, Feb 4, 2007.

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  1. John Nagle

    John Nagle Guest

    The Rittenhouse Orrery: Princeton's Eighteenth - Century Planetarium, 1767 - 1954, A Commentary On An Exhibition Held In The Princeton University Library, Howard C. Rice, Princeton University Library, 1954

    How is that for a lengthy title, only in academia!
    Most know David Rittenhouse for his fantastic clocks but he was involved in numerous other activities. A scientist he made some orreries which should not come as a surprise as he included planetary sections to his tall clocks.
    This is one of those thin hardbound books published as part of an exhibit such as our current display at the museum. Great interest to a Rittenhouse collector. I was surprised back in the nineties when the museum had the excellent American Clock exhibit that they did not have a copy of this book.
    It is not common but the NAWCC Library does have a copy and it pops up on Bibliofind usually in the 50 - 85 range.
     
  2. Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

    Fortunat Mueller-Maerki National Library Chair
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    Full bibliographic details on a related companion volume the book mentioned by John:

    # Title: Rittenhouse Orrery , Princeton's Eighteenth-Century Planetarium - A Checklist of Items shown in the
    SubTitle: Exhibition held in the Priceton University Library May-June 1954, in Princeton Univ.Librar.Chronicle
    # Author: Howard C. Rice
    # Publisher: Princeton Univ. Library
    Keywords: library exhibit catalog
    Other Keywords: orrery Rittenhouse Princeton
    Language: ENG
    Notes: A 14 p. article in Priceton U Library Chronicle, describing the 191 items displayed relating to the Rittenhause orrery, plus synopsis of a 100 page new publication by Rice about the orrery
    Edition: 1954 -- Copyright: 1954
    Kind: Article
    Type: Scientific instrument
    Geographic area: USA
    Topic: Astronomy
    Organization: Museum
    Pages: 14 -- Height in cm: 21
    Print Status: 2 (1 means in print - 2 means out of print)
    BHM ID: 4871
    _______________________________________
     
  3. Bill Ward

    Bill Ward Registered User
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    Perhaps the real value of this book, today, is that it documents how NOT to do a restoration. Of course, the Princeton Orrery was in dreadful condition; it had been "lost" for over a half century (ever since it was shipped to the Chicago Columbian Exhibition in the 1890's). The presumption was always that someone had stolen it when the fair was dismantled, or that it was lost in shipment back. No one ever suspected that it was stored all that time in a Princeton basement .
    But even before this, ever since the beginning of the 19thC, the Princeton Orrery had suffered ignominiously. The case had disappeared, the base plate was covered with the graffitti of student "wit", wheels were bent and broken, and many had been pilfered by students as souvenirs. This has been blamed on the depredations of Hessian soldiers during the Revolution (who were said to have used its large wheels to crack walnuts). But that's very unlikely, since the British general locked it up under armed guard for the duration of the occupation of Princeton. Perhaps it was the American soldiers who were to blame. Even that's unlikely to have caused the damage we know, because, after the war, it was sent to Philadelphia for repairs. Then, for years, the University wouldn't pay the bill; perhaps that's why Princeton only has one panel (out of an originally envisioned three). Still, we should be grateful that it survived at all, since, in the 19thC, the Princeton students rioted and burned the college to the ground. Even after this narrow escape, professors needing the odd gearwheel for an apparatus or demonstration felt free to "borrow" from the Orrery.
    (Princeton's is not the only extant Rittenhouse orrery; the University of Pennsylvania also still has theirs, with two of the three panels stilll in the original Chippendale case. It's been much better treated; until the mid-20thC, it featured on the University's seal. Other copies were proposed: Jefferson wanted one for the University of Virginia; Franklin for Louis XVI, who helped win the Revolution and was a rabid clocklover; Frederick the Great was also in the running. And, several Rittenhouse tallcase clocks with Orreries have been preserved).
    When the Princeton Orrery was discovered in the basemant of the Physics building in 1947, Lyman Spitzer, a relatively new professor and chairman of the new astrophysics dept., took control. He kept the discovery a secret, and charged a British avionics technician named Ashworth (who was NOT an horologist or restorer) with putting it together. Ashworth made several new wheels, and mounted it on the repainted- over that pesky graffitti- starry panel. He also fitted it out with electric motors (or, as later restorer Carl Peters put it, he "electrocuted" it! )
    Several years later, Spitzer used the announcement of the Orrery's discovery, and presentation as a working, modernized artifact, a fait accompli, to raise money for his department. There were few objections. He held observatoy soirees for wealthy alumni, talking them up while they looked through the large telescope and gawked at the Orrery spinning madly around. This succeeded brilliantly. Money begets money, and soon the Dept. was getting huge contracts from the US government. The well-funded Astro-Physics Dept was instrumental in scoring Princeton's major coup of the 20thC, the attraction of Albert Einstein to the faculty of the Insitute for Advanced Study. Later Spitzer got funding from a wealthy amateur astronomer for the construction of a new Astrophysics building, Peyton Hall. He made the Orrery its centerpiece, putting it in an interior wall facing on the major hall, with the rear visible from the facuty lounge- perfect for fundraisers!. Recently, Spitzer has been honored for his contributions to astronomy by having a space telescope named after him.
    Ashworth was not an astronmer though, and he made a few mistakes. The following story was related to me by a Princeton professor.
    There was a problem with the moons of Jupiter. These were held on a small "gantry" which would crash into other parts or planets on occasion. Ashworth blamed this on Rittenhouse's design. So, at the evening parties, someone was supposed to be assigned to watch Jupiter, and if a collision seemed imminent, to reverse the motor (yes, they ran it backwards! ) Now, it wasn't uncommon for the invited alumni to bring their wives and kids along, especially if those kids were interested in astronomy. Now, one such kid was there one night, watching the Orrerys planets spin around, and he suddenly yelled "Hey! Jupiter's moons are going BACKWARD!" The professors examined it, and sure enough, the kid was right; no one had noticed that mistake. When it was corrected, Jupiter no longer had collisions.
    But at least Ashworth kept the old bent and broken gears he didn't use. These were mounted on a board for display when the Orrery was unveiled. There was some possibility that they had been pilfered later by contractors for the brass, as they were stored in a remote shed which contractors had access to. (Other items, made of aluminum, some of great importance to the US space program, had been stolen from this shed). However, on a visit a few summers ago, we were able to locate and photogaph them. Unfortunately, the files relating to the Orrery's restorations seem to have disappeared in a paper purge.
    While researching the story of the discovery and restoration of the Orrery, I came across a rather touching coda. When he was old, penniless and unwell, Ashworth had petitioned the University for a pension. The administration coldheartedly refused, maintaining that, despite his key role in University history, he was never a faculty member, just a technician, and he was ultimitatly rebuffed. So, since he wasn't a citizen here, he returned to England to be a ward of the state. Years later, there was a very sad letter in the file from his elderly sister, who related that he was blind and living in the poorhouse, and despondant. She had just one small request, to cheer him, from the insitution where he'd spent his best years. She asked for a letter from the University President recognizing Ashworth for his contributions to the University's reputation. This was followed by a short, and rather dismissive note from a secretary to an assistant to a vice-president, curtly acknowledging that he'd worked on the Orrery. That was all.
     
  4. Tony Ambruso

    Tony Ambruso Registered User

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    Great story, Bill. I found it absolutely fascinating, as you may have guessed from my avatar.
     
  5. John Nagle

    John Nagle Guest

    Bill,
    Rittenhouse products sure have suffered over the years haven't they!
     
  6. Tony Ambruso

    Tony Ambruso Registered User

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    Yes, his clocks have suffered the same fate as the knowledge of his contributions. I was born and riased in Philadelphia. The man's name are all over the city. I venture to say that 95% of the Philadelphians can't tell you two things about David Rittenhouse, and one of those two things could be to tell you Rittenhouse's first name. That's why I bear his image as my avatar.
     
  7. Bill Ward

    Bill Ward Registered User
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    Tony, I thought that's who your image was of. It's always nice to find someone interested in DR. Where is this cut from?
     
  8. Tony Ambruso

    Tony Ambruso Registered User

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    Bill, I can't remember exactly where I got this picture. I may have found it on the Net or scanned it from hardcopy. I did a short talk on David Rittenhouse and gathered the information from many sources. The research was an eye-opener for me. I never realized the accomplishments of that man, our second Franklin.
     
  9. Ralph

    Ralph Registered User
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    Rittenhouse fans in the Chicago area might want to consider attending the Chicagoland Chapter #3 meeting this Sunday.

    Bruce Forman is scheduled to give a program on the restoration of the Drexel Institute Rittenhouse clock, of which he was a restoration team member.

    It will be at:

    Elmhurst American Legion
    310 Butterfield Road
    Elmhurst, IL 60126
    (630) 833-7800

    9AM for general admittance.

    Guests welcome.

    Ralph
     
  10. Tony Ambruso

    Tony Ambruso Registered User

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    I bet that will be a great program. Sure would like to attend this one, Ralph. But it might be a long ride from Phoenix.:(
     
  11. Dr. Jon

    Dr. Jon Registered User
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    I saw the Orrery shortly after the 1954 event. I was 10 and it looked a bit odd but I have no idea of the travesty.

    More recently I heard a talk by a guy in the New York area who did the restoration on the Rittenhouse Orrery in Philadelphia. He found the Rittenhouse had done some amazing things and what a total arrogant botch they Princeton Orrey "restoration" was. From having seen it I knew the speaker had it right.

    The story I heard was that Ashworth was crony of the then president of Princeton rather than of Lymon Spitzer. From what I knew of the two people, which is far from definitive, the President of a more likely bad actor.
     
  12. John Nagle

    John Nagle Guest

    It's sad , but many museums have limited resources, numerous projects are in the air, things that would look great on display if they worked or were restored, so here come the volunteers.
    This group of well meaning people usually overestimate their skills, are unsupervised and away they go leaving disaster in their wake.
    This is one of the ways many wonderful things get destroyed.
     
  13. Bill Ward

    Bill Ward Registered User
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    That could have been a life-altering experiance; is that what got you interested in horology?

    [/quote]More recently I heard a talk by a guy in the New York area who did the restoration on the Rittenhouse Orrery in Philadelphia. He found the Rittenhouse had done some amazing things and what a total arrogant botch they Princeton Orrey "restoration" was. From having seen it I knew the speaker had it right.[/quote]

    That would be Steve Kramer. He made a slide/tape presentation about the PA orrerey, which the NAWCC has a copy of. One of my projects is to get this (and some others) converted to DVD for a wider audiience. Perhaps it could be shown at the Ward Francillon Seminar this year.

    [/quote]The story I heard was that Ashworth was crony of the then president of Princeton rather than of Lymon Spitzer. From what I knew of the two people, which is far from definitive, the President of a more likely bad actor.[/quote]

    It's not surprising, given the secrecy which surrounded the restoration, that different stories might emerge. If they were cronies, the President certainly failed to go to bat for Ashworth in a rather spectacular way: Ashworth tried to get tenure, and the administration ruled that he didn't even have standing to apply. But I don't think he even knew the President. The chief reason he was selected to do the work is that no one knew him, so he wouldn't be telling anyone what was going on (after all, he was a foreigner). That and the fact that he was clearly Spitzer's man, and not the University's.
     
  14. Tony Ambruso

    Tony Ambruso Registered User

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    The story behind this restoration would make a good novel. Truly interesting.

    I have vague memories as a child playing with an orrery at The Franklin Institue in Philadelphia. It was sitting in a rather lonely side corridor off of the main Physics section. It had handwheels (?) and you could move the planets, and I believe a date would be displayed. I remember trying to take it into the future to see how it all ended. ;)
     
  15. Bill Ward

    Bill Ward Registered User
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    The FI used to have a number of orreries. They also have a much-simplified "replica" of the Schwilgue Strasbourg astronomical clcok, made near the turn of the century by Ungerer, who was the successor to Schwilgue's business. Some of the orreries were 18thC, but the one you describe sounds like something made for kids to play with.
    Unfortunately, many of the FI's mechanical devices and displays were disposed of in the late 20thC to make way for what are essentilly video and computer games.
     
  16. Dr. Jon

    Dr. Jon Registered User
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    No the Rittenhouse Orrery was not what started my interst in horology. One thing that did was the Harrison Chronometers which my father took me to see the same year I saw the Princeton botch.

    Having volunteers or "non" professionals is a difficult issue. I have become more sensitive to this from reading Time Restored. Gould did some pretty nasty things to get these running and on display, but he saved them from oblivion which would have happened without him.

    Professionals by their nature follow the path of the money. Theirs has not always turned out be the path most honored by those who follow but you have to give strong preference to those willing to make preservation their livlihood while we hobbyist get to carp but don't put much on the line.

    With good will there it is not clear what constitutes best preservation practice but what Spitzer and Ashworth did was a travesty.

    I still have a bit of trouble believing Sptizer was involved. I lived in Princeton in 1955 and went to school with his daughter, who I knew by sight and name. I also recall that in fall of 1955 they had returned from a year in Europe. Spitzer was not in town at least in the final parts of the debacle.
     
  17. John Nagle

    John Nagle Guest

    The King Tut presentation at The Franklin Institute is pretty awesome. I agree about the video game approach but if it gets the young people active , great! We like the IMAX! My only problem is those type of exhibits are not working when I visit the museums. We were at the NAWCC museum a few weeks ago and one of their exhibits, pendulum lengths, was damaged and non-working.
    Those type of exhibits are exposed to extensive or careless use and difficult to maintain in working order.
    I saw a Reiffler clock movement as scrap due to the "diligent" work of volunteers.
     
  18. Tony Ambruso

    Tony Ambruso Registered User

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    The road to hell...gentlemen.
     

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