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Author:  Francois "Bud" Uzes

David Rittenhouse (1732-1796) and his brother Benjamin (1740-1825) are considered by many to be the premier surveying instrument makers of America. Both also made clocks and other mathematical instruments, some of which are national treasures. David was very innovative and is generally credited with inventing the vernier compass and possibly the automatic needle lifter. He was also the first American maker to use spider webs in the telescope reticle. The compasses marked with Benjamin's name are all nicely decorated and he stands out as the more artistic of the two.

Most Rittenhouse compasses are marked with the full names of the individual maker. A few that are simply marked RITTENHOUSE are believed to have been made by David or under his direction. For a period Benjamin apprenticed with his older brother and likely also performed some work on them. In later years Benjamin joined forces with other individuals and produced compasses under the names of Rittenhouse and Potts, Rittenhouse and Evans, and Rittenhouse and Compy. It is believed that the latter name was used by Benjamin when working with his son, also named David.

This rather plain example shown here is signed RITTENHOUSE and is believed to be a product of David with possible assistance from an apprentice. It is the earliest known example of a compass with an automatic needle lifter.

A decorated compass in the National Museum of America History marked RITTENHOUSE was given by David Rittenhouse to George Washington in 1782. The only known RITTENHOUSE & COMPY. compass is displayed in the Lincoln Park Museum in Petersburg, IL. It was reportedly used by another American president, Abraham Lincoln.


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