David Rittenhouse in Philadelphia

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.

Circa 1702 Mill, photographed in 1890

Circa 1702 Mill, photographed in 1890, courtesy of 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.

Rittenhouse Homestead, photographed in 2006

Rittenhouse Homestead, photographed in 2006, courtesy of Historic RittenhouseTown.

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

Acknowledgements

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.

References:

  1. Brooke Hindle, David Rittenhouse, (Princeton,: Princeton University Press, 1964)
  2. Paul Halpern, “Philadelphia: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Physics,” Physics in Perspective 11, No. 2, (2009), pp. 209-227.
  3. Historical RittenhouseTown website: http://www.rittenhousetown.org

Charles Darwin in Cambridge, England

Darwin's Room, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Darwin’s Room, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

It was probably not too difficult to come across something having to do with Charles Darwin when visiting Cambridge, England before 2009. Following that year’s celebrations (of Darwin’s birth in 1809 and publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859), I can imagine it is guaranteed Darwin will cross your path. I visited Cambridge in the summer of 2009 to attend a conference about, well, Darwin. I spent two days beyond the conference exploring the town and visiting sites related to Darwin with Richard Carter, whom we can thank for Darwin’s portrait gracing the ten pound note.

It was at Cambridge that Darwin took up a increased interest in natural history, and thanks to his cousin William Darwin Fox, also at Christ’s College, a fondness for beetles. Darwin would later reminisce on several occasions about his beetle collecting adventures. For example, in his Autobiography:

“I am surprised what an indelible impression many of the beetles which I caught at Cambridge have left on my mind. I can remember the exact appearance of certain posts, old trees and banks where I made a good capture. The pretty Panagaus crux-major was a treasure in those days”
p. 63.

Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

Cambridge is also where he met two of his mentors, botanist John Stevens Henslow (who recommended Darwin for naturalist on HMS Beagle) and geologist Adam Sedgwick, who would both take issue with his transmutation theory years later. His older brother Erasmus was also at Cambridge, and Darwin sent three of his sons there as well. Some of the museums in Cambridge now hold specimens Darwin collected around the world. The Cambridge University Library holds many of his documents, including letters, and Cambridge University Press has published much about Darwin, including the correspondence series.

Darwin’s life in Cambridge began in January 1828, and since he started at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, well into the academic year, he had to find lodging away from the college. Luckily for him, he found one just a minute’s walk from the college. Darwin stayed in a room above a tobacconist on Sidney Street, which is now marked with a plaque outside a Boots pharmacy store:

Site of Darwin Lodgings (1828), Cambridge

Site of Darwin Lodgings (1828), Boots the Chemist, Cambridge, England

Darwin’s college rooms at Christ’s, which he took up in October 1828, have been restored by historian of science John van Wyhe (director of The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online). According to van Wyhe:

“[c]learly a wide variety of activities took place in Darwin’s rooms. He read for his College curriculum, wrote letters, compared his captured beetles with published descriptions in his copy of Stephens Systematic catalogue of British insects and carefully pinned the beetles to cork boards. He had friends to coffee, and in the evenings they sometimes dined there and would then drink wine and play cards”
p. 6

Darwin Stained Glass, College Hall, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Darwin Stained Glass, College Hall, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

While the Tutor of the College thought Darwin was practicing with a horse-whip in his rooms, he was in fact blowing out a candle with the puff of air from a still-capped shotgun. That shooting practice surely went toward Darwin’s collecting practices in the field.

There is an old Cambridge rumor that Darwin’s Christ’s College rooms were once those of theologian William Paley, whose Natural Theology Darwin read while at Cambridge. In the College Hall, a stained-glass portrait of Darwin rests next to that of Paley.

In December 1831, Darwin left England aboard HMS Beagle, and returned in October 1836. Darwin went back to Cambridge in December following a visit home to Shrewsbury. He took lodgings at 22 Fitzwilliam Street, and here Darwin organized his specimen collection from the voyage. Only a few months passed before Darwin decided he needed to move to London, to enter into the scientific community and farm out his specimens to zoologists, botanists, and geologists of repute. Janet Browne described this lodging as Darwin’s “temporary centre for a storm of industry” (p. 346). Today, the Fitzwilliam lodging is marked by a stone plaque.

While Cambridge took little of Darwin’s more than seventy years of life, this place had profound influence on the creation of a young naturalist. Today, the city marks with plaques, sculpture, and exhibits one of its most famous students, who deemed his three years at Cambridge, as he wrote in his Autobiography, “the most joyful in my happy life; for I was then in excellent health, and almost always in high spirits” (p. 68).

Young Darwin Statue by Anthony Smith, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Young Darwin Statue by Anthony Smith, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge

All photos by Michael D. Barton, July 2009.
» View more Cambridge photos by Michael Barton.

More images

Further reading

Barlow, Nora, ed., The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow, London: Collins.

Browne, Janet, Charles Darwin: Voyaging: A Biography, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Specifically, chapters 4-6 and 15.

John van Wyhe, “Charles Darwin’s Cambridge Life 1828-1831,” Journal of Cambridge Studies 4 (2009), 2-13. [PDF, based on book listed below]

John van Wyhe, Darwin in Cambridge, Cambridge: Christ’s College, 2009.

Further information

Darwin’s college rooms

Darwin at Christ’s College (1, 2)

Darwin & Christ’s College

Replica of Darwin bust by William Couper (info on original)

Replica of portrait by Walter Ouless in the College Hall

Stained glass portrait in the College Hall

“Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts” at the Fitzwilliam

“Darwin the Geologist” at The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

“Beetles, Finches and Barnacles: the Zoological Collections of Charles Darwin” at the Zoology Museum

Darwin’s microscopes at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science

Cambridge University Botanic Garden, frequented by Darwin and holding some of his specimens

Darwin Papers at the Cambridge University Library

“A voyage round the world,” 2009 exhibit at CUL

Darwin Correspondence Project (offices at CUL)

Darwin books from Cambridge University Press

Bust of Darwin at Darwin College

Poltimore House, Exeter, England

West Front, Poltimore House

West Front, Poltimore House, by Derek Harper. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. Part of the west front of the house, with the badly-damaged early C20 ballroom on the right.

Poltimore House, near Exeter, is one of the most fascinating historic estates in the South West of England and is of particular interest for visitors keen to learn more about medical history. The site on which Poltimore House stands has been populated since the 1000s. The original Tudor mansion – elements of which are still visible in Poltimore House today – was first erected in the 1550s and belonged to the Bampfylde family for five centuries. In 1921, after the house had been extended and modernised repeatedly, the private residence was turned into a girl’s school, Poltimore College. During the Second World War, it housed the boys of Dover College, Kent, who had been evacuated to Devon.

Even though Jocelyne Hemmings describes this period in one of the chapters of her book A Devon House: The Story of Poltimore House (2005), a lot is still unknown about Poltimore House’s history as a hospital. Visitors with an interest in the history of medicine will therefore be keen to know that the Poltimore House Trust is hoping to start a research initiative to understand better this aspect of the estate’s past. According to the Secretary of the Poltimore House Trust, Dr Claire Donovan, the project will include a substantial oral history element.

The Saloon, Poltimore House

The Saloon, Poltimore House, by Derek Harper. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. Early C18 Rococo plasterwork, with the ceiling reflected in a smashed mirror. The cherub might be modelled on Queen Anne's son, the Duke of Gloucester - but might not.

Researching Poltimore House’s medical history is part of a much larger series of projects, events and initiatives run by the Trust. The primary goal is to raise sufficient funds to restore Poltimore House, as the building had been neglected since the NHS sold it in the 1970s. By the time the Trust acquired the estate in 2000, the mansion had become derelict and was in dire need of repair. With the support of the East Devon District Council, English Heritage and a number of dedicated volunteers, the Trust has started to restore Poltimore House and hopes to establish it as a new landmark in Devon.

Poltimore House is located in Poltimore, Exeter, Devon, EX4 0AU. It is open to visits by the public. For more information on the history of Poltimore House and the different activities offered by the Poltimore House Trust, please visit their website at http://www.poltimore.org/. To find out more about any aspect of the Trust’s work, please get in touch with [email protected].

Sources:

Hemmings, Jocelyne. A Devon House: The Story of Poltimore House. Bristol: University of Plymouth Press, 2005.

Poltimore House Website. http://www.poltimore.org/. (May 2011)

Charles Darwin’s Home – Down House, Kent

The Home of Charles Darwin, Down House

The Home of Charles Darwin, Down House, by Anthonyeatworld. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

In 1842 Charles and Emma Darwin settled in the rural Kentish village of Downe. Down House (spelled differently from the village) was to remain their home for forty years, an occupation ending only with Emma’s death in 1896. (Charles died there in 1882.)

Darwin recorded in his autobiography that when they first found the house he ‘was pleased with the diversified appearance of the vegetation proper to a chalk district … and still more pleased with the extreme quietness and rusticity of the place’. At Down he hid away from visitors, even locating a mirror outside his study to warn him when someone was approaching.

Yet in this quiet place Darwin received communications and visitations from naturalists and men of science worldwide, weaving together his grand picture of nature that was expounded in The Origin of Species (1859) and later writings. Down House was also the site of his own experiments and observations; no problem was too trivial or too minute to be worthy of his patient elaboration. Dotted around the grounds of the house are the sites of these experiments, concerning worm burrowing and, in the hothouse, carnivorous plants and orchids.

The sandwalk, Darwin's thinking path.

The sandwalk, Darwin's thinking path, by Tedgrant. Image in Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Elsewhere in the gardens one can retrace Darwin’s steps along the peaceful Sand-walk, where he paced daily to mull over his information and formulate his arguments. Charles and Emma planted this avenue shortly after their arrival, choosing a variety of native trees and flowers. Its constant susceptibility to invasive species of weed proved an immediate and frustrating instance of natural selection in action.

The house itself offers glimpses of the sentimental Darwin; permitting his children to toboggan down the stairs on a tea-tray must surely have interrupted his peaceful contemplations. This was not a house but a home. Each room has been reconstructed as far as possible based on photographs taken in the 1870s; Darwin’s study is recreated as it would have been, complete with bucket in the corner for those moments when his mysterious illness overtook him.

Charles Darwin's study at Down House, restored with original furniture including his wheeled armchair and writing board.

Charles Darwin's study at Down House, restored with original furniture including his wheeled armchair and writing board, by Mario modesto. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

As a historian, I find myself slightly uncomfortable with the canonisation that inevitably accompanies the reconstruction of sites such as Down House. The English Heritage web site (9 March 2011) even refers to it as a ‘place of pilgrimage’. Such a construction of historic sites can result in unintentional bathos (here’s where the great man’s bottom sat), or more seriously in historic bias, creating the impression that only Darwin was the source of evolution by natural selection, and that his ideas came to him clear and perfect, the same in form as we know today.

But even so … it’s undeniably something very special to come here, to see the home and gardens that produced some of the most enduring science, history and even myth of our times. Here you can catch a glimpse of the oft-forgotten cast of women, children, servants, visitors et al who are all a part of the ‘Darwin’ story. Highly recommended.

Further information:

Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton University Press, 2003).
http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/home-of-charles-darwin-down-house
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_House

The Freud Museum, London

Image of Freud sofa

Sigmund Freud's couch used during psychoanalytic sessions can be found at the Freud Museum, by Konstantin Binder. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

Having remained in Vienna almost to the bitter end, Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna eventually fled from Nazi persecution after the annexation of Austria in 1938 and set up their new home at 20 Maresfield Gardens, London. Though reluctant to leave, the Freuds had foreseen this eventuality and, over the years, shipped many of their possessions to Freud’s son Ernst Ludwig in England. Finally, Freud’s reputation as the founding father of psychoanalysis enabled him to bring all of his household effects and furniture with him when he fled. As the story goes, the Austrian storm troopers were afraid that history would never forgive them if they mistreated the eminent psychoanalyst.

As a result, and though Sigmund himself died the following year, the former Freud estate in London now hosts a large collection of Freud’s worldly possessions. Indeed, upon his death, Anna apparently preserved the study and library in the way he had arranged them, so that one can now muse about Freud’s taste in literature, which includes – but is by no means limited to – Goethe and Shakespeare. Alongside Freud’s immense collection of Roman, Greek and Egyptian antiquities, there is also a portrait of Freud by Salvador Dalí.

The highlight of any visit to this establishment, however, is the original couch upon which Freud’s patients reclined while he sat out of sight and listened to them. From Disney cartoons to Woody Allen films, this iconic setting has been reproduced countless times and has become inextricably linked with the very concept of psychoanalysis. But visitors to the Freud Museum may be surprised to find that unlike the slick and sterile black leather couch that features in most popular accounts, Freud’s couch is actually covered by a colourful Persian rug.

For more information and opening hours, see the Freud Museum’s website at www.freud.org.uk.

Kensington Cottage, Usk, Monmouthshire, Wales

A photograph of Wallace's birthplace. From My Life (1905)

A photograph of Wallace's birthplace, taken from My Life (1905). Image available in Public Domain.

This is the place where Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of the theory of natural selection, was born on 8th January 1823. Originally, Monmouthshire was known as Gwent, Wales, but today is part of the twenty-two principal areas of Wales.

The house is situated close to the river Usk, not so far from the town of the same name on a road leading to Llanbadoc. Wallace lived here for his first six years, and on his autobiography, My Life (1905), there are some mentions about these times:

“The river in front of our house was the Usk, a fine stream on which we often saw men fishing in coracles, the ancient form of boat made of strong wicker-work, somewhat the shape of the deeper half of a cockle-shell, and covered with bullock’s hide.”

Or his recollections about the fishes he used to catch:

“The lamprey was a favourite dish with our ancestors, and is still considered a luxury in some districts, while in others it is rejected as disagreeable, and the living fish is thought to be even poisonous… Since this period of my early childhood I do not think I have ever eaten or even seen a lamprey.”

The house still survives and is best known like Kensington House, although there have been some structural alterations and the houses which used to be to either side of it have been demolished. Nowadays there is no plaque in the house itself in order to remember how important is this place for the history of science. What we can found is a monument erected in 2006 by the Alfred Russel Wallace Memorial Fund, in the yard of Llanbadoc church, made from Carboniferous limestone with fossils on its surface and it has a black granite plaque, remembering Wallace.

Unfortunately, the house is currently up for sale, and the last news about the possibility to officially protect Kensington House through the support of the Welsh Assembly Government and the National Trust are not very good, since on their consideration there is not a strong relation between the property and Wallace. As it’s mentioned here, Wallace devoted many passages on his autobiography to stressed the importance of this house and its surroundings.

Hopefully, in the next years, especially through more research about Wallace and his contributions there can be a new possibility to protect Kensington House.

Further information

South Wales Argus: Time to recognise scientific pioneer by Chris Wood

A. R. Wallace’s birthplace up for sale! by George Beccaloni.

Maison d’Auguste Comte, Paris

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) is known to historians of science for his role in founding the science of sociology, the philosophy of positivism, and the religion of humanity.

A plaque at Maison d'Auguste Comte celebrating Comte's residence

A plaque at Maison d'Auguste Comte celebrating Comte's residence

For sixteen years, from 1841 until his death in 1857, Comte lived in a relatively modest apartment at 10 Rue Monsieur-le-Prince in Paris, where he composed works on philosophy, sociology, politics and religion. Modern-day visitors who retrace the steps of intellectual pilgrims who visited the eccentric French sage during his lifetime will find a museum, library and archive devoted to the man and his work. Comte’s living quarters are preserved and, for those wishing to make a more scholarly visit, the library and archive are extremely well stocked with books, periodicals and other printed materials relating to all aspects of positivist thought and activities in France, England and further afield.

Comte’s works, especially the Cours de Philosophie Positive (1830-42) had a considerable impact on British intellectual life, and those who visited Rue Monsieur-le-Prince to pay their respects included George Eliot, G. H. Lewes, Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer. Bain found Comte’s home to be ‘modest enough, being only a half-floor of some three or four rooms altogether, and looked after by a single female servant.’ Comte ‘received us in a bright-coloured dressing-gown, – which only meant that, in regard to dress, he was a Frenchman.’ This Frenchman’s whole attitude, Bain found, was one of ‘severe denunciation or self-aggrandisement’ devoid of any sense of humour. ‘Of such men as Aristotle, Milton, Bishop Butler, and Wordsworth, it may be safely said that they wanted the sense of humour’, Bain wrote, ‘but, in sheer negation, probably, they never approached to Auguste Comte.’

Herbert Spencer was also unimpressed. Comte’s physiognomy was ‘unattractive’ although, being ‘strongly marked’, it was at least ‘distinguished from the multitudes of meaningless faces one daily sees.’ Spencer did not recall a great deal of the conversation that passed between himself and Comte: ‘I remember only that hearing of my nervous disorder, he advised me to marry; saying that sympathetic companionship of a wife would have a curative influence.’ This, Spencer noted, was a point of agreement between Comte and Thomas Huxley who, many years later, also ‘suggested that I should try what he facetiously called gynœopathy: admitting however that the remedy had the serious inconvenience that it could not be left off if it proved unsuitable.’

An illustration of the Comte library noted as the room in which La Politique Positive was written

An illustration of the Comte library noted as the room in which La Politique Positive was written

During a visit to Paris in 1865, some years after Comte’s death, George Eliot and G. H. Lewes thought the great positivist’s former home the most interesting thing they saw. Eliot wrote to a friend: ‘We thought the apartment very freundlich, and I flattered myself that I could have written better in the little study there than in my own.’ In the 1890s, the artist Thomas Sulman and his wife sent new year cards to their fellow English positivists, offering ‘Fraternal Greetings from Finchley’, which bore an image of the library in Comte’s apartment, with the caption ‘Room in which La Politique Positive was written’.

Truly devoted Comteans today can visit not only the Maison d’Auguste Comte, but also a surviving Chapel of Humanity at 5 Rue Payenne; Comte’s grave at the Père Lachaise cemetery (including a monument erected by Brazilian positivists in 1983); a statue of Comte at the Place de la Sorbonne; and the Rue Clotilde de Vaux, named after the woman who was the inspiration for Comte’s Religion of Humanity and its associated ideal of altruism.

There is an informative article on Auguste Comte at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and more information on Comtean locations in Paris at the ‘Invisible Paris’ blog.