J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Boston’s Orrery “luckily preserved”

Yesterday we left watchmaker Joseph Pope burned out of his home and workshop on the west side of Orange Street in April 1787.

The Massachusetts Gazette’s 24 April report on the fire included some good news:
We are happy, however, in informing the publick, that, amidst the destruction by the fire, a curious specimen of art and industry, which does honour to our country, was luckily preserved; we mean the ORRERY constructed by Mr. JOSEPH POPE.

This admirable performance, the result of many years labour and study, is near six feet in diameter, and was almost finished, when the house of the artist, with most of his effects, were in a few minutes reduced to ashes. Much praise is due to those gentlemen who, by their exertions, preserved to the lovers of science this curious specimen of philosophick and mechanick ingenuity, and deposited it at the house of his Excellency the Governour, where, we are told, it still remains.
Citing a letter written by Joseph Pope’s daughter, the Memorial History of Boston (1881) described the rescue of the orrery this way:
Governor Bowdoin, who had been interested in it, when he heard of its danger, sent six men with a cart and blankets to rescue it. With difficulty it was brought down the stairs (Mr. Pope himself tearing away the balusters), and taken temporarily to the Governor’s house…
Gov. James Bowdoin (shown above) was a highly learned man in eighteenth-century style: born to wealth, successful as a merchant, he became a prominent amateur in several fields without really distinguishing himself in any.

As a writer, Bowdoin was the principal author of Boston’s report on the Boston Massacre and traded poems with Phillis Wheatley. A longtime member of the Massachusetts Council, he followed John Hancock in being elected governor of Massachusetts. In scientific pursuits, he corresponded with Benjamin Franklin and the Royal Society in London. In 1780 Bowdoin was the principal founder of Massachusetts’s own learned society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and remained its president until 1790.

Bowdoin had obviously heard about Pope’s orrery and thought it deserved to be saved. However, the report of the machine being saved from the fire was the first time Boston newspapers had mentioned it. Perhaps Pope had not yet been ready to announce his creation, it being only “almost finished” and still upstairs in his workshop.

In any event, the fire appears to have made the orrery famous in Boston. According to Pope’s daughter, the watchmaker moved to a new house on Essex Street, and his invention “was visited by hundreds a day.” But where, gentlemen asked, did it really belong?

TOMORROW: The orrery on display.

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