Scenes of Learning: Science and Mathematics
“Will the Knowledge of the Mathematiks, Astronomy, and Natural Philosophy, those sublime Sciences, give a Right to the Character of a Man of Sense . . . ” — Benjamin Franklin, 1735
ittle divided the arts from the sciences at the College of Philadelphia. Student Nathaniel Evans, a poet, even wrote a celebratory “Oration on Science,” which he read publicly. Franklin purchased electrical apparatus for the school during the 1750s, and soon thereafter Ebenezer Kinnersley, a close scientific collaborator of Franklin’s and master of the English School, was giving well-attended lectures for students and the community. A manuscript draft showing the contents of those lectures is displayed here. Although the draft is probably in Kinnersley’s hand, Franklin later claimed in his Autobiography that he “encouraged [Kinnersley] to undertake the Experiments for Money, and drew up for him two Lectures.”
Provost William Smith, a strong supporter of the place of science or “natural philosophy” in the curriculum, became a backer of astronomer David Rittenhouse, funding the construction of his telescope to measure the transit of Venus in 1769. Smith convinced Rittenhouse to build a second “orrery,” a spectacular model demonstrating the movement of the planets around the sun, after Rittenhouse sold his first one to Princeton. That second orrery is now on display on the first floor of this Library. Rittenhouse later became a professor of astronomy and Vice-Provost of the University (1779-82).
tudents of all ages learned mathematics through the laborious preparation of copybooks, which were as much exercises to improve their writing as to improve their math skills. The elaborate, often elegant composition of these books suggests their value at a time when paper and books were scarce resources. Such techniques changed little over the course of the eighteenth century, and copybooks were often passed down from student to student or within families. At the college level, copybooks were vital in courses for which few textbooks had been written, like chemistry. This manuscript, with its carefully-drawn chart of the elements, dates from the 1760s.
he study of the natural world, which Franklin had encouraged in his Proposals, seems to have taken on increasing importance in some schools. This English microscope, constructed in the middle of the eighteenth century, was used at the Westtown School in Chester County in the early nineteenth. Students there worked in the extensive gardens, where they collected plant samples.