Family:Whitney, Thomas (b1765-a1828)

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Thomas1 Whitney, parentage unknown, was born before 1765, perhaps in or near London, England, and died after 1828, probably PA.

He married an unknown woman.

They appear to have had children, based upon census records.

Thomas Whitney, an English artisan who settled in Philadelphia, advertised "surveying instruments on an improved construction" in 1798, and by 1820 he had made about five hundred compasses, "the good qualities of which are well known to many Surveyors, in at least sixteen of the States and Territories of the Union." Whitney sold plain compasses for thirty to thirty-seven dollars, and "Nonius or Minute" compasses for forty to sixty dollars. He also kept a "book of record for Magnetic Observations” and invited contributions from "any gentleman who is pleased to throw light on this important subject."[1]

Thomas Whitney listed in Pennsylvania directories from 1802 to 1824 as a mathematical maker and supplier of instruments. Also supplied instruments used by the Lewis and Clark expedition.[2]

Thomas Whitney advertised in 1820 that he had produced about 500 surveying compasses during the preceding thirteen years.[3]

"Thomas Whitney advertised in the Federal Gazette of April 12, 1798, as from London, and 'moved from 72 (late Mr. Gould's) to No. 74 South Front Street where he makes various instruments in the most approved manner.' Whitney did not depend solely on the sale of instruments for his income. Bunting by the piece was sold, writing slates and razors, silversmith's anvils and files; pen-knives and sailor's pocket knives, scissors and bone moulds - whatever they many be - could all be purchased at the shop of Thomas Whitney from London."

"Thomas Whitney is listed in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania directories from 1802 to 1824 as a mathematical instrument maker, although the Gurley company has repaired a compass marked, "Thos. Whitney, Phila 1828."

William James Young at the age of 15 or 16 was indentured as an apprentice to Thomas Whitney for a period of seven years.[4]

Signature Maker Info Instruments Comments Location References
WHITNEY, JOHN USA, c.1801, MIM OIM succeeded Thomas Whitney, might be his son. 70 South Front Street, Philadelphia, Pa. USNM.
WHITNEY, THOMAS England; USA, fl.1790-1821, MIM OIM SIM Surveyor's Compasses = Chicago Historical Society, D.(1987) (No. 321, 1817), Franklin Institute, P.C., D.(1984) (1818), GUR (1810), P.C. (No. 63, 1810), D.(1994) (1815); Magnetic Compasses = USNM, Winterthur Museum, apprenticed to Samuel Browning 2 in the Grocers' Company on Sept. 5, 1782; free of the Company, Jan. 7, 1790; went to Philadelphia, Pa. before 1798; owned a dividing engine made by George Adams 2; took William J. Young as an apprentice in 1813 until 1820; T.C.(2)(one in 1798); succeeded John Gould. London; 72 South Front (Mr. Gould's); 74 South Front Street; North Sixth Street, continued a little above the Mill Pond; 70 South Front Street; all in Philadelphia, Pa. J. Brown 1; Smart 1; USNM; Bedini 1 & 8; J.A. Bennett 2; Coffeen I; R.W. Miller; Moskowitz 130; Garcelon 33; RSW.

Thomas Whitney (d. 1823) served an apprenticeship with a mathematical instrument maker in London before moving to the United States. He set up shop in Philadelphia and, according to an announcement in the Federal Gazette for April 12, 1798, prepared to make "various instruments in the most approved and accurate manner." Over the course of the next quarter century, Whitney made about 500 surveyor’s compasses, and a few other instruments as well. He also trained William J. Young, who would become the most important mathematical instrument maker in the United States in the middle decades of the 19th century.[6]

On 13 Jun 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Thomas Whitney asking questions concerning optical astronomical instruments.[7]



  • Census records

1. ^  Deborah Jean Warner, True North—And Why It Mattered in Eighteenth-Century America, p. 383, citing the following:

  • Thomas Whitney’s advertisement in the Federal Gazette (12 April 1798), 3, quoted in part in Gillingham, “Some Early Philadelphia Instrument Makers,” 298–308, on 304–05; Whitney’s advertisement in Whitely’s Philadelphia Annual Advertiser for 1820. For prices, see Whitney’s trade card, in private hands.
  • Thomas Whitney, “Variation of the Compass,” broadside in compass box at NMAH.

2. ^  Thomas Whitney Antique Surveyors Sextant Compass

3. ^  Francois D. Bud Uzes, PLS, The Brothers Rittenhouse.

4. ^  Thomas Whitney, citing Smart, Charles E., The Makers Of Surveying Instruments In America Since 1700 (Troy, New York: Regal Art Press, 1962).

5. ^  Webster Signature Database Search Results

6. ^  [8]

7. ^  Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) Collection, 1773-1826 in the Missouri Historical Society Archives.

Copyright © 2010, Tim Doyle and the Whitney Research Group

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