Smithsonian - National Museum of American History, Behring Center

Physical Sciences Collection - Surveying and Geodesy

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Surveyor's Compass - click to enlarge

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Surveyor's Compass

Catalogue number:

"Rittenhouse PHILADELPHIA"

Overall: 13.75 in.; 34.925 cm; needle 5.625 in.

Legend has it that David Rittenhouse gave this compass to George Washington in 1782. If we believe this legend--and, indeed, there is no reason to doubt it--we might assume that America's most accomplished mathematical instrument maker and one of her leading scientists thought that the hero of the American Revolution should replace his English surveying instrument with one of American manufacture.

Rittenhouse and Washington might have met in the fall of 1774 when Washington was in Philadelphia attending the First Continental Congress. Washington certainly would have been interested in Rittenhouse's instruments and his work in connection with the surveys of several colonial boundaries. However, the first documented connection between the two men dates from June 1779 when Washington wrote to Rittenhouse: "I beg leave to trouble you with a Theodolite which is a little out of repair and to request that you will be good enough to have it put in order." Four years later, having returned to Mount Vernon and having time to think again about his lands, Washington asked Clement Biddle: "Did I not when the Army was leaving the Cantonment of Middle Brook, in June 1779, put a Theodolite into your care to be conveyed to Mr. Rittenhouse to receive some repairs? . . . I have not heard since what was done with the Instrument." We don't know what became of that theodolite, but we do know that in early 1783, Rittenhouse ground two pair of lenses for Washington, one for his spectacles, and the other for his reading glasses.

Anthony Kimmel, who gave this compass to the United States Government in the 1850s, could easily trace its provenance back to Captain Samuel Duval, the County Surveyor of Frederick County, Maryland, who died in 1815. According to Kimmel, Duval told many people that he had received the compass as a gift from George Washington. Kimmel went on to say that Duval was surveying Mount Vernon with “an imperfect Instrument of English Manufactory” and complaining boisterously of its inaccuracy “within the hearing of the ‘Mount Vernon Farmer’ who accompanied the surveys.” Washington then, “as the tradition affirms, turned silently on his Heel, went to the Mount Vernon Mansion, and returned & brought with him this surveyor’s compass and made it a present to Samuel Duval, under a lecture on ‘Impatience.’” Kimmel believed that this transfer occurred in 1795. The Smithsonian Institution acquired the compass in 1883, along with other historic relics housed in the United States Patent Office.

Ref: “The Correspondence Relating the Surveyor’s Compass of Gen. George Washington, Made and Presented to him by David Rittenhouse, the Philosopher & Mechanic of Philadelphia 1782, Which was given by the Farmer of Mount Vernon to Captain Samuel Duval, the County Surveyor of Frederick County, Maryland, 1795, and had passed through the hands of William Hobbs & Son, 1815, and of Captain George Riner, 1852, into the Possession of Anthony Kimmel, all of Lingamore, Frederick County, Maryland, 1852.” This volume of letters is in the Political History collection, #92,542.

Further Information:

David Rittenhouse
Surveyor's Compass