Get Ye to an Orrery

by James Ceaser

Not that many people today, even among the most erudite, know what an orrery is. This is a real shame. I was in Philadelphia last week attending a seminar with some of the best graduate students in the nation, and my enthusiastic invitation to join me in a pilgrimage to visit David Rittenhouse’s orrery met with blank stares. Only the most confident could summon the courage to ask point-blank, “Just what are you talking about?” The lack of knowledge — and my inability to give a good explanation — bred a disinclination to make the trek, which led to a solo journey.

Mind you, I am not attempting to place myself on any kind of higher intellectual plane. It is only by accident that I came to develop this curiosity, which now seems to be evolving into an obsession, for orreries — if this is indeed the proper plural of the noun. Not only have I been a teacher at the University of Virginia for over a quarter of a century, and thus perforce interested in all matters Jeffersonian, but I also once devoted a few years of research to the origins of anti-American discourse in European thought. It was Jefferson, it turned out, who was particularly dismayed at the anti-Americanism that was so powerful in some circles in Europe in his day, and he wrote his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, in no small part to confront this view. Late-18th-century anti-Americanism was rooted in a prevalent scientific theory that almost everything in the Americas was inferior to what was found in Europe and was in a state of degeneracy. Our animals were smaller and less noble, the indigenous American less powerful and less sexually potent, and the European transplant in a condition of gradual physical and intellectual deterioration. The principal cause of this misfortune was said to be climatological, related to the greater dampness and humidity in the American atmosphere. Jefferson undertook to refute this theory, in part by providing extensive charts to prove that American animals compared favorably to their European counterparts. It was owing in part to Jefferson that others could claim that, as we might say today, “studies show” that the whole degeneracy thesis was in error in respect to the animal realm.

When it came to human beings, the proofs were necessarily less rigorous. In refuting the French encyclopedist Abbe de Raynal’s claim that America never produced “one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science,” Jefferson cited three examples: Washington, Franklin, and Rittenhouse. Placing Rittenhouse in the company of those other two was great praise indeed, and it was all based on his remarkable mechanical construction: “We have supposed Mr. Rittenhouse second to no astronomer living: that in genius he must be the first, because he is self-taught. As an artist he has exhibited as great a proof of mechanical genius as the world has ever produced. He has not indeed made a world; but he has by imitation approached nearer its Maker than any man who has lived from the creation to this day. . . . Mr. Rittenhouse’s model of the planetary system has the plagiary appellation of an Orrery.”

An orrery may described as the precursor of the planetarium. It is a device of some kind — each one is different and an original conception of its own architect — that gives a visual representation of the movement of the planets (and some of the moons) of our solar system. In Rittenhouse’s case, this involved a series of gears and levers, most hidden from view, that display the movement of these bodies in relation to one another, and to do so over time for a millennium of past history and for a millennium to come. It is like a complicated Swiss watch that would require knowledge of astronomy, of mathematics, and of the craft of mechanics. Rittenhouse’s orrery is contained in a fairly large case — really a piece of massive furniture — that contains three panels, the major one just described, a second one that charts lunar eclipses, and a third that he did not complete. If it works — and I have been assured that it does — we have a wonderful example of a perfectly functioning, and very elegant, Rube Goldberg mechanism.

A representative of the natural, as opposed to the hereditary, aristoi, Jefferson chafed at the designation of this invention by the name of Orrery. That name comes from a British aristocrat, the Earl of Orrery, who — my knowledge is spotty — bought or sponsored the first orrery in 1704. Jefferson, I suppose, would have preferred to call it a Rittenhouse.

In any event, one can visit his orrery in Philadelphia, where it is housed on the sixth floor of the main library of the University of Pennsylvania. Rittenhouse for a time held a position there as professor of astronomy. (He was also president for many years of the American Philosophical Society, a science advisor to the government during the Revolutionary War, and the first director of the U.S. mint, appointed by his friend Jefferson.)  The orrery is nicely displayed inside a blue glass room, but it is inadequately curated. There is scant explanation of how it works or what it does. By way of a small imbroglio, I learned that the Penn orrery, which I had assumed was the original, is in fact the second one that Rittenhouse constructed. It seems that, in an early Ivy League competition, President Winthrop of Princeton was able to purchase the first, to the consternation of many in Philadelphia. The orrery at Princeton is found today in Peyton Hall, a building I have walked past scores of time on my many visits to that campus without ever knowing of the treasure that lay within. I won’t let that happen again. It is long past time for Princeton to make more of its orrery, even, or perhaps especially. if it means giving less attention to Woodrow Wilson.