Object Name: grand orrery
Dimensions: 163.2 x 171.3 x 171.3 cm (64 1/4 x 67 7/16 x 67 7/16 in.)
Description: This gear-driven model of the solar system is made of mahogany and brass and is operated by hand-crank. The planets--Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn--are included with their known satellites. The planets revolve on their axes, the moons revolve around the planets, and each planetary system revolves around the sun at relative speeds. The Earth's system also shows the rotation of the lunar node, represented by a small ivory ball on a stick.
The beehive dome is twelve-sided and has windows held in a mahogany frame. It represents the sphere of fixed stars. It originally rested on the ecliptic ring, but put a lot of stress on that part. It currently is raised up on a modern lucite sleeve.
The ecliptic ring is silvered and marked with calendar scales. One is the zodiacal calendar; the other the civil calendar. The ring is raised above the skirt on twelve turned gilt brass columns. Below the ecliptic ring are twelve silvered plaques mounted on the top of the skirt. These have astronomical information compiled in tabular form.
The skirt of the orrery is also twelve-sided and has windows through which to see the mechanism. Each window is painted with a sign of the zodiac. Twelve gilt, cast-bronze figures are placed at the twelve corners. These are three figures--Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, and James Bowdoin--who repeat four times around the instrument. Newton's bust is shown on a pedestal depicting his system of the world. Franklin stands next to a three-pronged lightning rod. Bowdoin leans against a pillar surmounted by a symbol of the sun.
The grand orrery sits on a low table with a hexagonal frame and six, reeded, Marlborough legs. The brackets have fretwork.
Crank handle is a replacement made by Richard Ketchen in 1988.
Signed: in center: Joseph Pope fecit Boston State of Massachusetts 1787
A gearwork model of the solar system operated by hand-crank, the orrery is used to teach astronomy and to discourse on the order of the universe.
For a video about the Grand Orrery presented by Harvard Art Museums' Ethan Lasser, made for the exhibit The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820, see here
Historical Attributes: Began in 1776 and finished in 1787, this orrery is one of only five known instruments made by Joseph Pope, a Boston clockmaker. It took Pope 12 years to make it. Half-way through the project, Uranus was discovered (in 1781). Pope did not include this new planet.
It is thought that Paul Revere cast the bronze figures.
In 1787 a major fire in Boston threatened the orrery at Pope's workshop. The Governor, James Bowdoin, sent six men and a wagon full of blankets to rescue the orrery and bring it back to his house on Beacon Hill. Dr. Waterhouse was among those that rescued it.
In 1788 a group of prominent cititzens tried to purchase the orrery for Harvard or pursuade the college to buy it. Pope asked £450, which was a fortune. Members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts for permission to hold a lottery to raise money to buy the orrery. The General Court consented on November 22. The lottery tickets were sold and winners drawn in March 1789. The lottery raised not only the £450 but an additional £71.14.9, which was also used to purchase scientific instruments for Harvard.
The orrery never worked perfectly, most likely due to the weight of the mechanism and the lack of rigid frames and gears. Simon Willard was called in to repair it in the 1790s. According to the story that Willard delighted in repeating, the orrery would work all right up to a point, and then whole solar system would lurch forward. Many skilful mechanics had been called in to repair the defect, but all failed. Finally the Harvard Corporation offered Willard untold sums if he could make it run smoothly. Willard looked it over carefully, took out his drill, drilled a hole in a certain place, and put in a rivet. The orrery worked perfectly. The whole operation took about an hour. The Harvard authorities were delighted. "Now, Mr. Willard, how much do we owe you?" "Oh," said Willard, "about ninepence will do, I guess."
Primary Sources: Memoires of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1788).
Published References: Joseph Lovering, LLD, "Boston and Science," in Justin Winsor, ed. Memorial History of Boston, Vol. IV: The Last Hundred Years. Part II. Special Topics, Chapter IX, pp. 489-526.
John Ware Willard, Simon Willard and His Clocks (New York: Dover, 1968), 26-27.