Skinner Auctions
Skinner AuctionsBoston MA
July 29, 2006 10:00 AMCalender

Important Brass Surveyor's Compass by David Rittenhouse

Sell one like this
Auction: Clocks, Watches & Scientific Instruments - 2345Location: BostonDate / Time: July 29, 2006 10:00AM


Important Brass Surveyor's Compass by David Rittenhouse, with 5 1/4-inch silvered dial signed in riband around central rosette David Rittenhouse, Philad.*, eight-point rose with hatched and patterned engraving, fleur-de-lis at North, East and West points reversed, silvered needle ring engraved each degree 0-90 in four quadrants, 0 at North and South unmarked, original blued-steel needle with cut arrow tip, winged brass hub and center clamp operated by threaded wheel on the underside, cast "tulip" socket, the limb with vial and screw-on sights, engraved Made for Rich. Sherer, ht. 8 3/8 x lg. 14 1/2 in.

Provenance: Provenance: Research by the consignor suggests that the original owner was Richard Sherer, born in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, in 1767. He was married and had at least two sons, one of whom, another R. Sherer, was born in 1811. The Sherer family appears to have remained in western Pennsylvania for the next two generations, and by 1855 at least part of the family was residing in Muscantine and Newton, Iowa. There is no record of the Sherers in either Ohio or Indiana in the days leading up to the Civil War, although the compass may well have traveled across these states in order to reach Iowa, its journey following the pattern of American Western migration in the 19th century. It was eventually acquired by the vendor's father, E. Taylor Campbell, Chief Cartographer for the northwest section of the state of Missouri. Campbell was the last engineer to have both owned and used Sherer's compass. He worked for a while in the Missouri lead belt, for the U.S. Geological Survey, and for the National Silver Company in New Mexico, before returning to Irontown in 1928, at the start of the Depression. It was on a visit to a second hand store in Fredricktown, sixty miles south-southwest of St. Louis, that Campbell discovered the Rittenhouse compass in 1931. A letter from the consignor, detailing family history, is included in the Lot.
Note: David Rittenhouse Rittenhouse (1732 – 1796) was born in Roxborough Township, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, near the paper mill that is paternal grandfather had built in 1690. Smart describes how, from his childhood, David had a 'curious mind. He read, figured, and tinkered. He mastered mathematics, astronomy, and Newton's Principia.' He grew up on the family farm in Norriton, where he constructed his first wooden-movement clock at the age of seventeen with tools supplied by his father. It was here that David began his business making and repairing clocks, and where he trained his younger brother Benjamin, born in 1740.
David's first public service was a boundary survey for William Penn to settle a dispute with Lord Baltimore. He laid out the twelve-mile radius around Newcastle, which forms the boundary between Pennsylvania and Delaware. The accuracy of his work was commended, and his calculations accepted by Mason and Dixon. His international reputation as an astronomer was established when he accurately computed the Transit of Venus in 1769, and observed the planet with astronomical instruments of his own construction in the observatory that he built. In 1770, influential patrons encouraged David Rittenhouse to move to Philadelphia, where his growing reputation gained him employment on boundary surveys and commissions in Maryland, Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. His most famous commission was the construction of a surveyor's compass for George Washington, now in the New York State Library. He produced calculations for Thomas Jefferson and was consulted by Benjamin Franklin, following whose death in 1790, David Rittenhouse was elected President of the American Philosophical Society. A professor of Astronomy in the University of Pennsylvania, and an elected member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, he was appointed the first director of the Mint by Washington in 1792. He is credited with the introduction of the vernier and the declination scale to the surveyor's compass.
David and Benjamin Rittenhouse worked together during the early Norriton period from 1761 until David's marriage in 1766. Benjamin Rittenhouse took on journeyman clockmakers / apprentices, notably William Lukens Potts from 1796 – 1798 and Benjamin Evans from 1798 – 1801. According to Bruce Foreman, Clockmakers of Montgomery County 1740 - 1850, Benjamin's son, David Rittenhouse the younger, was born in 1776 and probably apprenticed in his father's Worcester workshop. The relatively little surviving documentation on David the younger confirms that he was engaged, at least for a period, in the manufacture of clocks and instruments. The Philadelphia city directory of 1799 lists him as clerk in the registrar's office. In 1800, he returned to Worcester Township and worked as a clockmaker in his father's clock shop, until Benjamin Rittenhouse, having suffered financial difficulties, liquidated the business in 1801. In the August of 1802, he advertised a sale of his own in the Norriton Herald and Weekly Advertiser; various pieces household and farm equipment were listed, although there was no mention of either clocks or surveying instruments.
The Western Pennsylvania Historical Society has in its collection a surveyor's compass by Rittenhouse & Evans, which also bears the name Richard Scherer. Assuming that the other documented Sherer compass dates from the period between 1798 – 1801, when Scherer would have been in his early thirties, it suggests that the compass here is either one of the final instruments produced by David Rittenhouse the elder , or that it is a rare example of the work of his nephew from the time of his professional association with Benjamin Rittenhouse. Similarities in the style of the engraving and the 'tulip' form of the cast socket are certainly comparable to the work of Benjamin and his partners. Owning instruments commissioned from two members of the Rittenhouse family (whether the brothers David and Benjamin, or Benjamin and his Son) would have conferred a certain status on the prosperous land owner or surveyor that Richard Scherer appears to have been, and their study provides the potential for future important research. The Smithsonian lists six compasses, all in museums, signed either D. or David Rittenhouse.
Literature: Charles Smart, The Makers of Surveying Instruments in America Since 1700, pp. 136 – 143. Silvio A. Bedini, (1986),Early American Scientific Instruments and their Makers, pp. 14 – 17. Bruce Ross Foreman, Clockmakers of Montgomery County, 1740 – 1850, pp. 42 – 46. Jeff Lock, 'Construction Details of Rittenhouse Compasses', from Professional Surveyor Magazine, December 2001.
Estimate $10,000-15,000


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