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"A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery," by William Pether, London, England, 1768. From the Collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
"A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery," by William Pether, London, England, 1768.
From the Collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.



“I am sure you world afford me some additional compassion, if you knew the drudgery of explaining the Orrery to two hundred persons, in small companies of ten or twelve, each: the satisfaction they universally express, makes however some amends.”

—David Rittenhouse, letter to his
brother-in-law, March 15, 1771

The print “A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery” (above) is based on Joseph Wright’s ca. 1766 painting “A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun” which hangs in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery. It shows a small group of spectators listening to a natural philosopher’s lecture on planetary motion. Such public scientific lectures, illustrated by various models and scientific instruments, became popular during the eighteenth century and remained so well into the nineteenth century.

Some art historians believe Wright deliberately made the lecturer resemble Sir Isaac Newton. Newton’s three-volume work, Principia (1687), explained the universe as an ordered system in which the motions of all celestial bodies obeyed the law of universal gravitation. The spectators’ attention is focused on an orrery, a mechanical device reproducing the movement of the planets and moons around each other and the sun. The candlelight from the center of the orrery illuminating their faces represents the enlightenment of their minds by science.



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