David Rittenhouse was born April 8, 1732 near Germantown in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
When an uncle died, David inherited his set of carpentry tools and instructional books. Along with an interest in science and mathematics, he used these tools to begin creating and inventing things.
By the time he was 19, David had started a scientific instrument shop at his father’s farm in what is now East Norriton Township, Pennsylvania.
His skill with instruments, particularly clocks, led him to construct two orreries (scale models of the solar system) for Rutgers University in New Jersey. In return for the gift, the college gave him a scholarship to attend the college enabling him to obtain a degree in philosophy.
Today one of these orreries is currently on display in the library of the University of Pennsylvania, and the other is at Peyton Hall of Princeton University.
David married Eleanor Coulston on February 20, 1766, and they went on to have two daughters.
He became one of the first to build a telescope in the United States. His telescope, which utilized natural spider silk to form the reticle, was used to observe and record part of the transit of Venus across the sun on June 3, 1769, as well as the planet’s atmosphere.
His wife Eleanor died February 23, 1771 from complications during the birth of their third child, who also died at birth.
David married his second wife Hannah Jacobs on December 31, 1772. They had an unnamed baby, who died at birth in late 1773.
On February 24, 1775, he delivered a lecture on the history of astronomy to the American Philosophical Society, in which he linked the structure of nature to the rights of man, liberty and self-government.
David also used the occasion to decry slavery.
So impressed were those in attendance that the American Philosophical Society commissioned the speech to be printed and distributed to delegates of the Second Continental Congress when they arrived in 1776.
David served as treasurer of Pennsylvania from 1777 to 1789.
In 1781, David became the first American to sight Uranus.
In 1784, David Rittenhouse, surveyor Andrew Ellicott and their crew completed the unfinished survey of the Mason–Dixon line to the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, 5 degrees of longitude from the Delaware River.
In 1786, David built a new Georgian-style house on the corner of 4th and Arch streets in Philadelphia, next to an octagonal observatory he had already built. At this house, he maintained a Wednesday evening salon meeting with Benjamin Franklin, Francis Hopkinson, Pierre Eugene du Simitiere and others.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather attend one of these meetings “than spend a whole week in Paris.”
United States Mint
The Coinage Act or the Mint Act, was passed by the United States Congress on April 2, 1792, establishing the United States Mint and regulating the coinage of the United States.
The Mint Act instituted a decimal system based on a dollar unit; specified weights, metallic composition and fineness; and required each United States coin feature “an impression emblematic of liberty”.
This Act established the silver dollar as the unit of money in the United States, declared it to be lawful tender, and created a decimal system for U.S. currency. The value of an eagle was set at 10 dollars, and the dollar at 1/10 eagle. It called for 90% silver and gold alloy coins in denominations of half cents, cents, half dismes, dismes, quarter dollars, half dollars, dollars, quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles.
The value of gold or silver contained in the dollar was then converted into relative value in the economy for the buying and selling of goods. This allowed the value of things to remain fairly constant over time, except for the influx and outflux of gold and silver in the nation’s economy.
This Act also created the office of Director of the United States Mint.
With the recommendation of President George Washington, David Rittenhouse was appointed Director of the U.S. Mint.
This Act originally placed the new Mint within the Department of State and authorized the purchase of the first Mint building in Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States.
David Rittenhouse’s first action as Director of the Mint was to purchase two lots on July 18, 1792 for $4,266.67.
They were located at Seventh Street and 631 Filbert Street in Philadelphia.
The next day demolition of an abandoned whiskey distillery on the property began.
David believed that the design of the first silver dollar should make it a piece of artwork.
On the morning of July 30, 1792, President Washington himself provided the flatware art that was used for the first silver dollar.
David then hand-struck the first silver dollars to test the new equipment and were given to President Washington as a token of appreciation for his contributions to making the United States Mint a reality.
Foundation work began on July 31, 1792 and by September 7th, the first building was ready for installation of the smelting furnace. This smelt house was the first public building erected by the United States government.
A three-story, 37 feet wide, brick structure facing Seventh Street was constructed a few months later. Being the tallest and most visible structure of the mint the words “Ye Olde Mint” were painted on the front of the Mint building first occupied by September of 1792.
The gold and silver for the mint was contained in basement vaults.
The first floor housed deposit and weighing rooms, along with the press room, where striking coins took place.
Mint official offices were on the second floor, and the assay office was located on the third floor.
Production began on cents in February of 1793.
In the first year of production at the Mint, only copper coins were minted.
The Flowing Hair dollar
Early in 1794, engraver Robert Scot began preparing designs for the silver dollar now known as the Flowing Hair dollar.
Scot’s initial design depicted a bust of Liberty, while his reverse featured an eagle, both required by the 1792 Coinage Act.
Government officials instructed Scot to include a wreath around the eagle and to move the denomination from the reverse face to the edge of the coin.
Extra care was taken during the engraving of this denomination, because the dollar would be the largest American coin, and would thus receive the most scrutiny from foreign nations.
The lettering was executed by Frederick Geiger, who had worked as a typographer for various books and newspapers.
After the dies were created, several copper test pieces were struck. Officials decided to add fifteen stars around the periphery, representing the fifteen states that had ratified the Constitution to that point, to the right-facing Liberty on the obverse.
Then on October 15, 1794, 1,758 Flowing Hair silver dollars were coined and immediately delivered to Mint Director David Rittenhouse.
In an attempt to help circulate the coins, David Rittenhouse spent many of the new coins and traded them for foreign coins in an effort to market the new products of the Mint.
Others were distributed to VIPs and distinguished visitors to the Mint.
After the initial production, David Rittenhouse ordered all dollar coin production to end until Mint personnel could build a more powerful press that would be capable of better striking the coins.
The New Hampshire Gazette wrote of the new dollar coins on December 2, 1794,
Some of the new dollars now coining at the Mint of the United States have found their way to this town. A correspondent put one in into the editor’s hands yesterday. Its weight is equal to that of a Spanish dollar, but the metal appears finer … The tout ensemble (entire design) has a pleasing effect to a connoisseur, but the touches of the [en]graver are too delicate, and there is a want of that boldness of execution which is necessary to durability and currency.
David Rittenhouse resigned from the Mint on June 30, 1795, due to poor health.
In October of 1795, the Flowing Hair design was replaced by the Draped Bust dollar.
In 1796, David worked on surveys and commissions that defined the boundries of the states of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
David Rittenhouse then died June 26, 1796 and is buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square is named for him.
In 1813 Rittenhouse’s nephew (and American Philosophical Society member) William Barton published a biography, Memoirs of the life of David Rittenhouse. Former president Thomas Jefferson ordered six copies directly from the author.
In 1871, Congress approved a commemorative medal in David’s honor.
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