For a guide to science sites in Philadelphia, see the following article in the Physical Tourist section of “Physics in Perspective”: Paul Halpern, “Philadelphia: Life, Libery, and the Pursuit of Physics,” Physics in Perspective 11 (2009), 209-227. “Physics in Perspective” regularly publishes such Physical Tourist articles, 31 of them since 1999, about half of which have been reprinted in John S. Rigden and Roger H. Stuewer, ed., The Physical Tourist: A Science Guide for the Traveler (Basel, Boston, Berlin: Birkhäuser, 2009).
The Wagner Free Institute of Science has its origins in the adult education movement which had started in 1821 in Great Britain with the foundation of the Edinburgh School of Arts, a similar movement developing only very slightly later in the United States. Philadelphia was a thriving commercial city by the first half of the nineteenth century; culturally some institutions, including the Library Company (1721), the University of Pennsylvania (1740) and the American Philosophical Society (1743) had been established pre-Independence. These catered for the middle, educated classes. The Franklin Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts, founded 1824, was more in the nature of a British mechanics institute. William Wagner (1796-1885), a Philadelphian of German descent, felt that there was a need to provide more educational opportunities for working people. He had become wealthy as a merchant in the lumber trade and he had a passion for natural history. In 1840 he sold his business, which provided him with sufficient capital to live the remainder of his life as a gentleman and philanthropist.
In 1843, Wagner purchased an estate to the north-west of Philadelphia and his embryo institute and museum were initially to develop there for “the free dispersion of scientific knowledge among the citizens of his native city.” In 1847 he offered a “Course of Lectures on Mineralogy, treated Chemically & Metallurgically… Illustrated by Specimens” and he later developed further courses on geology, mineralogy, and conchology. All the while, he was creating large collections. In 1855 he handed these over to trustees, teaching resources which by this stage also included “a library, philosophical apparatus, extensive assortments of diagrams illustrating geological phenomena, maps and cabinet cases.”
From 1859 to 1865, a fine purpose-built institute was constructed in neo-classical style, and it survives to this day. It originally included a library, classrooms, a lecture theatre and a large museum hall for natural history on the upper level. Following Wagner’s death in 1885, the building was somewhat remodelled and the museum was revised under the supervision of Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania. It is this reorganised display which is the basis of today’s museum and it is a remarkable survival: very few of today’s museum presentations can be seen to follow the organisation of a nineteenth-century display so closely. Most specimens are presented in cherry wood cases constructed in the 1880s and many retain the original handwritten curators’ labels. A particular strength is the collection of fossils from American sites, many of them collected by Wagner himself (see Earle E Spamer and Catherine A Forster A Collection of Type Fossils in the Wagner Free Institute… with a History of Paleontology at the Institute (Philadelphia 1988)). Sadly, the philosophical instrument collection, used for teaching by demonstration, is much diminished. The ground floor of the building, which includes the library and lecture theatre, has a splendid varnished-wood, Victorian quality about it. Lecture courses on scientific subjects continue to the present day, though they are now organised at a number of sites around the city as well as in the original building. The serial Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science commenced publication in 1887, though it appeared irregularly.
The Wagner Free Institute survives in a somewhat run-down part of the city and is best visited by taxi.
Address: The Wagner Free Institute of Science, 1700 West Montgomery Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19121, USA Website:http://www.wagnerfreeinstitute.org Tel: (001) 215-763-6529
The Chemical Heritage Foundation has evolved from the Center for the History of Chemistry which was established in 1982 as a joint project of the University of Pennsylvania and the American Chemical Society. It has developed independently since 1987 and it assumed its present name in 1992. The guiding force of the organisation up to 2007 was the historian of chemistry, Arnold Thackray; the current President is Tom Tritton. The CHF occupies a substantial former bank and adjacent buildings in the historical area of Philadelphia (contiguous to the site of Benjamin Franklin’s house, which was destroyed in 1812). The CHF offers resources to science historians, and it awards a number of fellowships annually. It has a massive library of more than 100,000 volumes (the catalogue can be accessed on-line), archival and graphic collections and a major resource of historical chemical instruments. A group which conducts research into contemporary chemical science policy oversees the production of oral histories, of which there are now more than 425. The CHF issues a magazine three times a year, Chemical Heritage, and it publishes monographs in
There are few really significant displays of the history of chemistry to be seen anywhere in the world. The CHF’s Masao Horiba Gallery is one of the few, and it is amongst the most recent. Its importance is based on a coherent and systematic collecting policy, and intelligent displays which are addressed primarily to thinking adults. As the development of the CHF’s museum activity only started rather recently, the strength of the collection lies in the period since the Second World War. Expert advice to the CHF has been provided by a group of distinguished chemists, meeting twice a year, who themselves were involved in the development and use of analytical instrumentation. Dedicated curators on the staff arrange to collect, conserve and store items which are identified as being desirable for the collection. It was they who developed the current permanent gallery, opened in 2008, named ‘Making Modernity’. There is additionally a small gallery for changing exhibitions.
The displays are strongly object-based and deal with challenging topics. The main hall includes islands of objects which are concerned with instrumentation and how measurements are used to illuminate chemical problems. Around the edge of this gallery are displays showing earlier techniques and some of the novel products developed by chemists, such as dyes and synthetic materials. Dominating the space is the very large Video Column which is an innovative and thrilling form of presenting the chemical elements, indicating what their properties are by means of short film clips. Above the main hall, and adjacent to an excellent modern conference centre, runs a gallery with cases presenting displays about chemists and themes. The CHF possesses a collection of portraits, including particularly fine examples of Robert Boyle, Joseph Priestley (who spent the last ten years of his life in Pennsylvania) and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac. One of the themes concerns young people’s chemistry sets and teaching more generally. The display was developed with the design input of the well-known New York firm of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, and for those who know about such things, the presentation bears their strong signature. An extremely important group of seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings which are displayed (but not in the area to which the general public is admitted) offer representations of alchemists in their laboratories (see Lawrence M Principe and Lloyd DeWitt Transmutations: Alchemy in Art (CHF: Philadelphia, 2002)).
Chemistry displays in museums are particularly difficult to develop. Conceptually, the subject is difficult for most visitors. The objects themselves may be important, but that does not make them visually compelling. It is all too easy to end up with a ‘book on a wall’ type of display which offers verbal explanation, but little else. The CHF has been aware of the problems and the dangers which lurk. A visit for science historians is highly recommended (it has to be admitted that the author of this piece was involved in the establishment of ‘Making Modernity’), in part to act as a focus for discussion of the public presentation of recent science history. A particularly interesting comparison is with the Museum of the Royal Institution, London, which was developed at more or less the same time.
Address: Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, 315 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, USA Website:http://www.chemheritage.org Tel: (001) 215-925-2222
The Barnes Foundation was established in 1922 by Albert C Barnes (1872-1951), an eccentric chemist whose successful development of an anti-venereal disease drug made him a fortune. With this he acquired ethnographic art and paintings, particularly of the French impressionist and post-impressionist schools, and early modern art. He had a purpose-built gallery constructed, designed by Paul Philippe Cret, and it included highly original decoration including cubist bas-reliefs by Jacques Lipchitz. In this he displayed the ethnography alongside the fine art, understanding well how African artefacts had influenced many of the artists whose work he collected. His remarkably rich collection includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes (‘The Card Players’ is particularly well-known), 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, etc.
Barnes was constantly at war with the Philadelphia establishment whom he despised and his gallery had been deliberately constructed in an unfashionable suburb of the city, Merion, away from the centre. Control was in the hands of Lincoln University, an establishment for black students. In the 1990s, the Barnes Foundation ran into financial difficulties and, in violation of Barnes’ will, controversial plans were devised by the city to transfer the collection much closer to the centre of Philadelphia. The legal challenge against the move was ultimately unsuccessful and the collection will now move into a new, and probably largely sympathetic, building near to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum and a number of other cultural institutions lined along the Ben Franklin Parkway. It will open in May 2012. The original building will remain accessible to the extent that it will retain a horticulture programme associated with Barnes’ arboretum, and will house the Foundation’s archives.
A strongly critical, polemical, film about background to the proposed move, ‘The Art of the Steal’, was made in 2009; it is well worth watching.
Website:http://www.barnesfoundation.org Address: The Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130, USA Telephone: (001) 215-640-0171
The full official name of the Society is the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge. The name dates to 1769, when two scientific societies merged, but the APS traces its origins to 1743, when Benjamin Franklin and others formed the organization to provide a way for its members to get together to discuss “philosophical” matters. For Franklin, “philosophical” meant natural philosophy, the study of the natural world, science, and practical knowledge.
The APS is still a membership organization, with about 1,000 elected members accomplished in a broad range of fields, from science to civic and cultural affairs to social sciences and the humanities. It is the first learned society in the United States and meets semi-annually in interdisciplinary, intellectual fellowship. The APS also has a number of core programs. Research grants support a wide range of activities, including one of the oldest grant funds for ethnographic and linguistic field work. The Publications Department publishes monographs and journals, including the oldest learned journal in the country. The Museum, whose antecedent is Charles Willson Peale’s museum of the eighteenth century, puts on exhibits that reflect the interests of the Society and its collections.
The Museum has a changing program of temporary exhibitions, on interrelated themes of science, art and history; many – in fact most – of them are of direct interest to historians of science. See http://www.apsmuseum.org/. The Museum is located in Philosophical Hall, right next to Independence Hall, which is itself across the street from the Liberty Bell. You can visit the Liberty Bell for free any time it is open (the APS Museum, too, though donations are welcome), but you need timed tickets to see Independence Hall; tickets are free and available at the Visitors Center.
The Library has exhibits in its foyer, which is open to the public weekdays. During the summer tourist season there is an exhibit of treasures of the APS. Almost always on display is one of the original journals of Lewis and Clark, most of which were deposited in the Library by Thomas Jefferson in 1817.
Library Hall, located across the street from Philosophical Hall, is home to one of the great independent research libraries in the country. Using the Library requires registration and making an appointment (see http://www.amphilsoc.org/library/research), but should you have an interest in one of the library’s collection strengths, there are rich holdings to explore. The three main collection areas are American history before 1860 (including the papers of Benjamin Franklin and Charles Willson Peale and his family), Native American ethnography and linguistics (including the papers of Franz Boas), and, of course, the history of science.
Early natural history is represented in such collections as the Benjamin Smith Barton Papers, the papers of John LeConte, and the journals of André Michaux. The papers of ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy are in the collection. Many other disciplines are represented: evolutionary biology (Charles Darwin, George Gaylord Simpson), physics (Edward U. Condon, John Wheeler); biochemistry (Carl Neuberg, Erwin Chargaff), computer science (John W. Tukey), bacteriology (Salvador Luria), neuroscience (Warren McCulloch), microbiology (Herbert Jennings), pathology (Peyton Rous, Simon Flexner), plant genetics (Barbara McClintock). Indeed, the genetics collection is among the best in the world and includes the papers of Theodosius Dobzhansky, L. C. Dunn, Sewall Wright, P. M. Sheppard and Curt Stern, to name a only a few. In addition, the APS is one of the largest repositories of eugenics collections in the world, holding records of such organizations as the Eugenics Records Office and the American Eugenics Society as well as the papers of Charles Davenport.
The Library also has a large collection of printed material, including some 275,000 bound volumes, thousands of maps, and tens of thousands of prints and photographs. Among the special printed collections are the Richard Gimbel Thomas Paine Collection, the Samuel Vaughan Collection (a rare, intact late 18th-early 19th century private library), and the James Valentine Charles Darwin Collection, containing works by Darwin in 25 languages.
Complete information about the American Philosophical Society can be found on its website, www.amphilsoc.org.
Adorning the century-old Beaux Arts College of Physicians of Philadelphia is a large banner advertising the Mütter Museum as a “disturbingly informative” place. This prestigious historical building — now a national landmark as “the Birthplace of American Medicine” — embodies the historical medical legacy of Philadelphia and its numerous firsts: first medical school, first hospital, first school of optometry, first medical college for women, first school of pharmacy, first children’s hospital, first hospital dedicated to the eye, and more. The College hosts two collections, the Historical Medical Library and the Mütter Museum, the latter having become a cultural landmark for an audience that extends well beyond the medical cognoscenti.
The College has grown with the nation. Founded in 1787 by physicians including a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, MD, the College aimed to raise the competence and standing of physicians and to relieve human suffering. The fellows, accomplished physicians who are elected to fellowship by their peers, remain at the core of the College and now number over 1400. One fellow, Thomas Dent Mütter, MD, a popular lecturer and successful physician in private practice, donated a pathological anatomy collection that opened as the namesake museum in 1863. Although the museum’s collections have been used for teaching and research throughout the museum’s history, public visitors began arrive in ever-increasing numbers from the early 1980s and now over 130,000 come yearly. At the museum people see what they cannot see elsewhere: they can explore intimately and viscerally what it means to be human.
Less conspicuous to casual visitors, the Historical Medical Library has been known internationally as one of the largest history-of-medicine collections in the United States with over 325,000 volumes including monographs, journals, manuscripts, archives, prints and photographs, pamphlets and incunabula (books printed before 1501). The library functioned as Philadelphia’s central medical library from the 1850s to the 1970s, serving its medical schools, hospitals, physicians, and other health professionals. Now, the library is conducting strategic planning to reinvent itself as a 21st-century special collections library. Administratively, the College is combining library and museum collections to elicit wider research interest and to use all collections for exhibits, web-based projects, and other initiatives. Most important, the library participates as an active member of the Medical Heritage Library, a digital consortium of east-coast libraries with substantial medical history collections (see: http://www.medicalheritage.org/).
To reckon with the new reality of electronic access and research, the Historical Medical Library has embraced the “humanities” epithet to recognize its interest in courting new audiences and to situate itself within a broader intellectual territory. Even the “Historical Medical” moniker is a re-invention to reflect a changing status. Informally, we describe the library and museum collections jointly as the Center for Medical Humanities. Our web-based outreach speaks to this humanities approach: the College collections inform our award-winning History of Vaccines website and our popular YouTube programs, What’s on the Curator’s Desk, the Mütter Minute, and No Bones about It (see: http://www.collphyphil.org/Site/mutter_museum.html). History of Vaccines speaks to the manner in which the College aims to use medical history to inform public health. In effect, the College has created its own television channel with social media and web-based programs. Additionally, happenings at the Mütter Museum and Historical Medical Library are followed through Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr.
The museum, on the other hand, contains about 25,000 specimens and artifacts with well-defined collecting foci; approximately 12% of the collection is on display. An unusual institutional survivor, the museum features its displays in 19th century vitrines and cabinets, contributing to an ambiance that visitors find attractive. To some degree, then, the Mütter is a museum of itself although its collections remain vital for historic and scientific research. The permanent exhibit contains specimens that many people return to visit as old acquaintances. The tallest skeleton in North America (7’6″) stands alongside Mary Ashberry, an achondroplastic dwarf; the conjoined livers of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, reside underneath a plaster cast of the twins, produced post-autopsy; and a display on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln includes tissue removed from assassin John Wilkes Booth. Over a hundred skulls of the Hyrtl Skull Collection face the viewer, and on each skull anatomist Josef Hyrtl, MD wrote the data of scientific interest in the 1850s: name, occupation, cause of death, age, birthplace, and religion, data constituting brief and poignant life histories. Facing a collection of teratology (“monstrous births”), the tools of pioneer bronchoesophagologist Chevalier Jackson surmount drawers and drawers of swallowed objects recovered without surgery, hundreds of specimens that enthrall many visitors as unusual medical curiosities. In a corner nearby stands the skeleton of Harry Eastlack, the only complete skeleton on display in North America that shows his disease, fibrodisplasia ossificans progressiva, a rare disease in which the connective tissue ossifies, eventually suffocating the victim. Although a rare phenomenon, the key to understanding this disease is the key to understanding bone growth.
Exhibits and collections as rich and varied as these specimens attract researchers. Recently, a Canadian team removed samples of 19th century cholera tissues in a search for viable cholera DNA. The research aims to map cholera epidemics world-wide over two centuries and to date no pickled 19th century specimen has yielded viable DNA—until now. One sample produced the sought result. The Hyrtl skulls have always attracted researchers: following the end of civil war in former Yugoslavia, war crimes investigators studied Croat skulls in the collection to help identify anonymous victims of mass murder. Some recent exhibits have highlighted public health challenges. In response to a (funded) request from the City of Philadelphia to complement its public health program to reduce lead poisoning, the museum created The Devouring Element: Lead’s Impact on Health which featured library and museum collections to explore our love-hate relationship with lead since antiquity.
In 2013, the 150th anniversary both of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Mütter Museum, the College will open a permanent exhibit on the medical dimension of the war, Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death, and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia. The exhibit will focus on the body, affording an intimate look at a white soldier, black soldier, and white female nurse. It asks visitors to consider the health of the soldiers and nurse, expectations for health care and mortality, and their relationship to physicians. The exhibit argues that during the war, injury, recovery, and death were managed in new ways and the war changed soldiers’ relationships with their own minds and bodies.
The College has developed a close relationship with the visual arts, most recently by commissioning internationally-renowned film artists, the Quay Brothers, whose meditation on the collections resulted in the film, Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos and Afterbreezes from the Mütter Museum), funded by the Philadelphia Exhibits Initiative of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. More information can be found here: http://www.pcah.us/the-center/newsroom/center-spotlight-september-2011/. The Museum of Modern Art curated a small exhibit on the making of the film, now on view at the College, and the film is shown throughout the day.
This article is condensed and reproduced by permission of the ANSP from www.ansp.org.
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University) was founded in 1812 “for the encouragement and cultivation of the sciences, and the advancement of useful learning.” The unique aspect of this statement of purpose lies in the word “useful,” a mandate the Academy has continuously redefined through research and education that reflects the societal needs of the times.
The Academy’s history mirrors the evolution of the relationship between the American people and the natural world. The oldest natural sciences institution in the Western Hemisphere, the Academy was founded when the United States hugged the Atlantic coastline, and Philadelphia was the cultural, commercial, and scientific centre of the new nation. Classic expeditions to explore the western wilderness, such as those led by Stephen Long and Ferdinand Hayden, were closely associated with the Academy. These explorers brought back new species of plants and animals, which were studied and catalogued; they formed the foundation of the Academy’s scientific collections which now contain over seventeen million specimens.
The Academy opened its doors to the public in 1828. Here, the mysteries of nature were revealed, its chaos organized and labelled in Latin and Greek. The collections expanded so rapidly-through gifts, purchases, and exchanges as well as expeditions—that the Academy outgrew its building three times in sixty years. In 1876, its present home was built at 19th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway—then the outskirts of town, and now the heart of Philadelphia’s cultural district. With the opening of the new building, the Academy became a modern museum with areas for exhibitions and public lectures.
By the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Academy expeditions were ranging farther afield, to the Arctic, to Central America, and later to Africa and Asia. Plants and animals collected during these excursions were incorporated into the Academy’s magnificent dioramas, many of which were constructed in the 1920s and ’30s. To capitalize on the educational potential of the dioramas, the Academy initiated classes for students in the School District of Philadelphia in 1932. In 1948, long before water pollution and environmental degradation became topics of public concern, the Academy established the Environmental Research Division. This marked the beginning of a broadened research orientation for the Academy, which included applied research in aquatic ecosystems as well as the traditional systematics research–discovering and cataloguing organisms.
Among the Academy’s most famous early members were Thomas Say, the father of American entomology and conchology, Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, and William Bartram, one of America’s earliest botanists. Another distinguished early member was Thomas Jefferson, celebrated for his political career, but less well known as a scientist. Jefferson was in fact a central player in the beginnings of American palaeontology, at a time when people were struggling with the ideas of fossils as evidence of past life, of extinction, and of an Earth far older than the Biblical account. Some of the fruits of Jefferson’s palaeontology became part of the collections at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1849 these holdings were transferred to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, where they are currently housed. This is the Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection.
Another important historical collection with Jeffersonian associations that is cared for by the Academy is the Lewis and Clark herbarium, made up of several hundred of the plants collected by the two explorers on their epic cross-country journey of 1804-1806.
One of the Academy’s most prized holdings is an original subscription copy of John James Audubon’s famous book The Birds of America. Published from 1827–1838, this monumental work is arguably the most influential book on birds ever created. It contains 435 life-sized hand-colored engravings bound into five volumes. Less than half of the 200 original sets of the “double elephant folio” survive, of which this is one. To celebrate this magnificent book – and Audubon’s association with the Academy, where he was elected a corresponding member in 1831 – an ‘Audubon page turning’ ritual has emerged. At 3.15 every week day, a member of the library staff turns a page of TheBirds of America, and museum visitors are invited to see the next picture and ask any questions they may have.
Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), who helped to build the Academy’s palaeontology department in the nineteenth century and whose statue stands in front of the museum, gives perhaps the fullest sense of what science, and men of science, were like in America’s past. Leidy was an encyclopedist of the natural world and – in the words of his biographer Leonard Warren – “the last man who knew everything.” Unlike the narrow experts who now make up the scientific profession, Leidy was an amateur polymath of nature; his knowledge spread (and was solicited) far and wide. He was known as the “Father of American Vertebrate Paleontology”, but besides this he was also a pioneering anatomist, parasitologist, protozoologist and natural historian. An enthusiastic supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, it was Leidy who saw to it that Darwin was elected to corresponding membership in the Academy in 1860 – the first American institution to so honour him following his publication of On the Origin of Species.
Today, the Academy is a world leader in biodiversity and environmental research, a focus that is reflected in its research, its education and its outreach work. Its permanent exhibits of contemporary science include butterflies, dinosaurs, dioramas, and a live animal centre. And for those who are curious about the history of science, but cannot visit in person, the Academy’s website hosts some excellent interactive collections, including Audubon’s daily page turning, Leidy’s works, and Jefferson’s fossils.
Robert McCracken Peck and Patricia Tyson Stroud, A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)
One of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century was German-Jewish mathematician Emmy Noether. Born in 1882, she was remarkable in that her accomplishments in the field of abstract algebra emerged despite considerable prejudice against her, first because of being a woman, and second because of her ethnic background. She taught in the 1920s and early 1930s at the University of Goettingen. Then in 1933, with the rise of the Nazi regime, an act was passed “The Law of the Restoration of the Civil Service” forbidding those of Jewish background to teach in Germany, unless they had been World War I veterans (a concession made to placate Hindenburg). Noether fled Germany and obtained a position at Bryn Mawr College in the US. She died two years later.
Einstein wrote a beautiful obituary about her in the New York Times:
“In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians. Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” -Albert Einstein, New York Times, May 1, 1935.
Emmy Noether’s grave is in a quiet, monastery-like part of Bryn Mawr campus, known as The Cloisters.
The grave marker, with her initials and years of birth and death only, is very plain and right in the pavement.
Map location (Emmy Noether’s grave, Bryn Mawr College): 101 N Merion Ave, Bryn Mawr, PA, USA
Ask Philadelphians what is the fanciest address in the city and they are likely to say Rittenhouse Square. Located at the intersection of Walnut Street and 19th Street, Rittenhouse Square houses many posh hotels and restaurants. Few locals know, however, that the prime location is named after astronomer and mathematician David Rittenhouse.
David Rittenhouse was born in 1732 in an early industrial community, set on a stream, that was then outside the boundaries of Philadelphia. Later incorporated into the city, the enclave is now called Historic RittenhouseTown.
The story of RittenhouseTown dates back to the 17th century, when German-born papermaker William Rittenhouse emigrated from Holland to Philadelphia and established the first paper mill in the Colonies. Because of its success, a second mill and bakehouse were constructed, along with the Rittenhouse Homestead. Generations of papermakers, weavers, and other industrial workers lived in the community supplying important products for the colonies.
Historic RittenhouseTown is open for tours. Surrounded by parkland, it is located at 206 Lincoln Drive in the northwest part of Philadelphia. It is open summer weekends from 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm. It is also open on weekdays, if arranged in advance, for groups of 10 or more.
The great-grandson of William, young David demonstrated great mathematical and scientific prowess, studying Newton’s Principia on his own. He became adept at building mechanical devices and established his own clock-making and instrument-making business.
Combining his scientific interests, particularly in astronomy, with his mechanical skills and craftsmanship, Rittenhouse set out in 1767 to build an orrery: a machine replicating the motions of the planets and moons in the Solar System using Kepler’s laws as a guide. He also constructed a modified refracting telescope to record the transit of Venus.
In 1786, politician Francis Hopkinson, a friend of Rittenhouse, sent him an intriguing question, “why… when he looked through a fine silk handkerchief at a light source, did he see a grid of dark lines which did not move at all, even though he moved the handkerchief back and forth?” (Hindle, p. 276)
After repeating Hopkinson’s experiment, Rittenhouse decided to resolve the issue by developing what became the first diffraction grating. By placing fine hairs parallel to each other, he constructed a grating with about 250 lines per inch. He then turned to the subject of precision timekeeping and astronomical measurement, constructing the first collimating telescope.
Rittenhouse was honoured much in his life. In the 1780s he was appointed the University of Pennsylvania’s first Professor of Astronomy and Vice-Provost. In 1791, one year after the death of Franklin, Rittenhouse was elected to be the second president of the American Philosophical Society. Rittenhouse held that position five years, until his own death. In 1825, Philadelphia renamed what was previously called Southwest Square after him, and Rittenhouse Square soon became known as one of the fanciest locations in the city. The physics and mathematics building at the University of Pennsylvania is named David Rittenhouse Laboratory in his honour.
Map location (Historic RittenhouseTown): 206 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia, PA 19144, USA
I thank Chris Owens, Director of Historic RittenhouseTown, for his help and for supplying the photos for this article.
Parts of this article are adopted from “Philadelphia: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Physics,” by Paul Halpern, published in Physics in Perspective.
Brooke Hindle, David Rittenhouse, (Princeton,: Princeton University Press, 1964)
Paul Halpern, “Philadelphia: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Physics,” Physics in Perspective 11, No. 2, (2009), pp. 209-227.
In honour of Benjamin Franklin’s 306th birthday (this article was published on 17 January 2012) and the upcoming 2012 Three Societies’ Meeting in Philadelphia, we have a special BSHS Travel Guide entry on sites relating to Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia written by Paul Halpern, Professor of Physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.
Benjamin Franklin, inventor, scientist, and statesman, lived in Philadelphia from 1723 until his death in 1790 (aside from multiyear stays in London and Paris). His contributions to the study of electricity capped an impressive career dedicated to public service. In Philadelphia numerous places and institutions carry his name. The Franklin Institute, funded in part through funds set aside from Franklin’s will, is one of many sites honouring Franklin in the city.
Located on Logan Square, at 20th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in the heart of Philadelphia’s museum district, the Franklin Institute is a large, classically-styled building with a columned façade. It houses one of the leading hands-on science museums in the United States, a collection of Franklin artifacts, and the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial.
With a spacious rotunda designed by noted architect John Torrey Windrim and modelled after the Pantheon in Rome, the Memorial serves as the Institute’s main entrance. It is the only section of the Institute building that is free to the public; the science museum has an entrance fee. In the center of the Memorial is a six-metre high statue of Franklin, sculpted by James Earle Fraser. Beyond the Memorial is the science museum, which features numerous exhibits including a 26-metre Foucault pendulum, and a large steam train built in 1926. Outside the museum building is a Grumman Lunar Module, built for the Apollo program.
Another Philadelphia museum dedicated to Franklin is Franklin Court, the site of his former home and print shop, located near the corner of Market Street (Philadelphia’s high street) and Third Street. Although the original building had been demolished, in 1976, during the bicentennial of American independence, the ruins of the house’s cellar and foundations were excavated, and new structures were built to offer a sense of how it looked. An underground museum, free to the public, showcases Franklin’s achievements.
Several streets away from Franklin Court are other notable sites related to Franklin. Franklin’s grave is located in Christ Church cemetery near the corner of Fifth Street and Arch Street. It is a tradition to toss pennies on his grave marker for good luck. At Fifth and Vine Street is the entrance to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Within its entrance plaza stands a metal sculpture commemorating Franklin’s reported ‘kite and key’ electrical experiment. Designed by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi to depict a kite and a lightning bolt, it is called Bolt of Lightning and was erected in 1984.
Franklin was the founder of many organisations and scholarly institutions, including the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania. The original site of the latter, the corner of Fourth and Arch Streets, is commemorated by a wall plaque.
The current site of the University of Pennsylvania is in the western part of Philadelphia. There stands yet another Franklin memorial, a bronze statue of a seated Franklin created by John J. Boyle in 1899.
Address: Franklin Institute, 222 North 20th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103