David Rittenhouse Tall Case Clock

David Rittenhouse (1732-1796) was eighteenth-century Pennsylvania's most accomplished clock- and instrument-maker. An avid astronomer, he built complicated astronomical clocks and orreries, or planetary models, that not only kept time but predicted celestial events. These major works, coupled with his notable and widely publicized observations of Venus passing between Earth and the Sun in 1769, established him as a scientific leader and secured him an eminent place in the history of American science.
Rittenhouse was also a prominent citizen of Philadelphia, politically active on behalf of the Revolution and the new American nation. He conducted boundary surveys in the Middle Atlantic states and the Northwest Territory, succeeded Benjamin Franklin as President of the American Philosophical Society, and served as first director of the U.S. Mint.
This eight-day clock in a plain walnut case, made about 1770, reminds us, though, that Rittenhouse spent more than twenty years—from about 1750 until the Revolution—making clocks for a living. Largely self-taught, he incorporated standard English features in this timekeeper: the movement has cast brass plates and steel pinions; a seconds pendulum; an anchor escapement; a rack-and-snail striking mechanism; a second hand on the escape wheel arbor; and a calendar. The dial is engraved "David Rittenhouse/Philadelphia."
The lead weights, according to oral tradition, survived the Revolution while most others did not. Probably because they sympathized with the British, the family that owned the clock hid the weights in a well to avoid having them melted down for shot. Ironically, Rittenhouse was one of those responsible for the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety's drive to procure ammunition during the war. His duties included collecting the lead clock weights commonly in use and replacing them with iron ones.
Currently not on view
Object Name
tall clock, Rittenhouse
Date made
ca 1770
Rittenhouse, David
Physical Description
wood (overall material)
brass (overall material)
steel (overall material)
overall: 96 in x 19 in x 10 in; 243.84 cm x 48.26 cm x 25.4 cm
Place Made
United States: Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
See more items in
Work and Industry: Mechanisms
Domestic Furnishings
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of New York University

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