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Frequently Asked Questions
The Rittenhouse Orrery

What is an orrery, and how did Princeton University come to own one? An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system. Orreries were regarded as essential teaching equipment for 18th-century lectures on “natural philosophy.” Invented c. 1700 by George Graham, they have been called orreries since English instrument maker John Rowley named a copy he made of Graham's machine "The Orrery" in honor of Charles Boyle, Earl of Orrery.

David Rittenhouse, a Pennsylvania clockmaker and self-taught astronomer, designed and built the College of New Jersey's (as Princeton University was then known) orrery. In 1771 College President John Witherspoon purchased the orrery from Rittenhouse for approximately £220 and installed it in Nassau Hall. The orrery instantly became the College's most valuable asset, but it was almost destroyed during the military occupation of Nassau Hall by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

After serving as a notable teaching aid for the first half of the 19th-century, the orrery's usefulness in the classroom faded, and it became a mere curiosity. It was included in Princeton's exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and then packed away upon its return, its whereabouts a complete mystery until 1948. Carpenters working in McCosh Hall discovered the orrery in its World's Fair shipping box and brought it to Astronomy Professor Newton Pierce for identification. Because of its damaged condition, the orrery's re-discovery was not publicized until the spring of 1951. Thanks to the generosity of Bernard Peyton '17, the orrery was restored and equipped with electric motors. After a temporary stay in Firestone Library, where it formed the focus of an exhibition in 1954, the orrery was moved to the lobby of Peyton Hall which was built in 1966 to house the Astrophysical Sciences Department.

Related Sources

Astrophysical Sciences Department Records, 1835-1988. See Box 24: Folder 2.

Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series, c. 1850-1996

Historical Subject Files Collection, 1746-2005

Leitch, Alexander. A Princeton Companion. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978). Also available online.

Office of Communications Records, 1922-1995

Princeton Alumni Publications, Inc., Editor's Records, 1895-1929

Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection, c. 1968-c. 1991

Rice, Howard C., Jr. The Rittenhouse Orrery: Princeton's Eighteenth-Century Planetarium, 1767-1954: A Commentary on an Exhibition held in the Princeton University Library. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Library, 1954). Manuscript and other materials related to Rice's books are housed in the Princeton University Archives. A preliminary finding aid is available for this collection.

Stasia Karel (2003)

Last modified: Tuesday, 24-Apr-2012 14:02:52 EDT