Artist, musician, teacher, inventor and founder of Scientific American magazine, Rufus Porter,
was ahead of his time in a number of ways. Porter (1792 - 1884) began his artistic life as a decorative painter and painter of portraits. Later he painted the murals that made him famous. He painted what he knew — landscapes depicting the farms around Bridgton, Maine, his childhood home, and seaport scenes of Portland, Maine, where he lived and studied as a young man. Porter patented inventions that were useful in the home, on the farm, and in the factory. The design for his revolving rifle cylinder, sold to Samuel Colt, helped to revolutionize the munitions industry. He designed and promoted airships that could fly people across the continent, although they were never built in his lifetime. He founded Scientific American magazine in 1845, to encourage innovation in American arts and sciences. This pioneering attempt at progressive journalism often included clarion calls to clear the way for a bright and promising future. In this abridged version of his published poem, Porter sets a tone of excitement for an approaching age where thought and action must lead the way out of a darker and restrictive past.
Men of thought! Be up and stirring
Night and day;
Sow the seed-withdraw the curtain,
Clear the way!
Men of action, aid and cheer them,
As ye may.
There’s a midnight blackness changing
Into gray Men of thought, and men of action,
Clear the way!
Once the welcome light has broken,
Who shall say,
What the unimagined glories Of the day;
And our earnest must not slacken Into play.
Men of thought, and men of action!
Clear the way!
Rufus Porter (1792 -1884)
Biography of Rufus Porter
Family and Early Years
Rufus Porter descended from a well-known early New England family, which include relations to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Porter Beecher, stepmother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Porter was born May 1, 1792 in West Boxford, Massachusetts to Tyler and Abigail Porter on the family farm. In 1801, the family sold their farm and settled in Flintstown, Mass., which would later become Baldwin, Maine. Three years later the family moved to Pleasant Mountain Gore, situated on Moose Pond in Bridgton, Maine.
Porter received very little formal education, attending the newly established Fryeburg Academy for six months, which his relative Rev. Nathaniel Porter was a founder. His sole teacher was the Rev. Amos Cook, and he never had formal instruction thereafter. He profited from independence of the self-taught, though lacking disciplines of scholars. After his six months of schooling, he spent time on the farm, inventing some time saving devices, writing poetry and playing music. In 1807, his family sent him back to West Boxford, where he was an apprentice to his older brother, a shoemaker. However, this only lasted a few months as Porter walked 108 miles from West Boxford to Portland to live with his second cousin, Aaron Porter. Evidence of his time in Portland can be seen throughout his later work, especially the Portland Observatory on Munjoy Hill, built in 1807.
By 1810 Porter was a house painter, having learned the trade from Marcus Quincy of Portland. He painted floors and woodwork with decorative, grained painting which was fashionable at the time as well as marbleized designs. He painted signs depicting animals and scenes, which played a role in his later work. Then the War of 1812 started and Porter along with his two of his brothers, joined the militia in Boxford after which he was sent to Portland to guard the seacoast. Soon he painted gunboats and by 1813 was back in Denmark with his uncle, David Porter, playing the drums for Denmark soldiers, painting sleighs and teaching drumming. There he learned techniques and designs such as subtle shading, brilliant eagles on drums and combined stenciling with freehand design.
In 1814, he was back in Portland as a fifer and drummer in the Portland Light Infantry. His time in the Portland Light Infantry explains the
constant use of militia marching in his wall murals wearing the Portland Infantry uniform. The war ended in 1814 and Porter briefly taught school in Baldwin and then Waterford, Maine. Later, he returned to Portland and built wind-driven gristmills. In October 1815, he married Eunice Twombly and soon moved to New Haven, Conn. and taught music while opening a dancing school. He became a lifelong teacher and began to paint small watercolor portraits. It is believed that from 1817-19 he made a trading voyage to Hawaii, as ships and Hawaiian scenery later played a prominent role in his murals. Further documentation has not been able to confirm nor deny his travels.
In 1848, Eunice died in Billerica, Massachusetts, where she had lived since 1823. They had 10 children. In 1849, Porter married Emma Tallman Edgar of Roxbury, Mass. Of their five children, only the youngest, Frank Rufus, lived past infancy.
1816 Stephen Twombly, August 16, born in Portland, Maine 1850 October 6 died in Billerica.
1820 Rufus King, August 9, born in Cambridge, Mass.
1823 Sylvanus Frederick and Francis Augustus, June 29, born in Billerica, Mass.
1825 John Randolph, December 5, born in Billerica.
1827 Edward Leroy, July 31, born in Billerica.
1829 Nancy Adams, July 16, born in Billerica.
1831 Ellen Augusta, June 19, born in Billerica.
1834 Washington Irving, October 1, born in Billerica. Died 1836 January 7, in Billerica.
1859 Son, Frank Rufus, born.
Rufus Porter took a long journey from 1819-23 from Connecticut to as far as Harrisonburg, VA, stopping in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore to view museums and meet other painters. He began painting portraits. In 1823 he visited Charles Willson Peale's Natural History Museum in Philadelphia. There was a department set up in the museum which had a silhouette studio,
which must have contributed to Porter's interest in the method used.
Jean Lipman, author of Rufus Porter, Yankee Pioneer (1969), speculates that
Porter must have met Peale, who lived until 1827. She notes that evidence remainsof a large landscape painting filling up the end of a gallery, which reached to the ceiling.
While in Alexandria, VA in 1820, Porter built his first camera obscura, and this
was the first major instance of his ability to anticipate the practical demands of
the times. The camera obscura as an aide for sketching was used by many artistsincluding Leonardo da Vinci and it was in common use by the early 18th century.Porter described it in his written work Select Collections of Valuable and
Curious Arts, and Interesting Experiments, published in 1825. He also wrote
an article in 1846, published in Scientific American, where he tells his students
to draw the outline in pencil, then retrace in diluted colors with a fine camel's
hair brush. The majority of his portraits were of the side view, with the distinctive brushed upward hair on the men. He built a cart to carry the camera and traveled with it thereafter. While he traveled, he began to think of an airship and other inventions.
By 1822, Porter’s interest shifted from portraits to landscapes. Not finding much of a market for small landscape paintings, he shifted to landscape wall murals. He then traveled throughout New England painting mural landscapes for houses and taverns, where he often fiddled to entertain as well. He was accompanied by "Joe", his nephew Jonathan Poor of Sebago, Maine. Poor was the son of Porter’s sister, Ruth, and by the 1830s he became the most productive member of Porter's school of landscape painters. He decorated many homes in Bridgton and surrounding towns. This school of apprentices grew during the 1830s to include one of Porter’s sons, Stephen Twombly.
Journalism and Inventions
After successfully painting murals in hundreds of homes in New England from
1825- 1845, and training a group of young artists in his theories and techniques,
Rufus Porter's attention was drawn to the new world of electrotype, telegraphing and journalistic possibilities. He first took over New York Mechanic in 1841 and printed issues for a year with some success. Next we find him in New York City working as an electro typist. He then founded Scientific American magazine in 1845, where he published and edited articles for about 10 months before he sold the magazine to two patent lawyers and remained editor for an additional year. The magazine is still in publication today and is one of the oldest continuously published American magazines. Reading the articles Porter wrote, we learn more about his thoughts and talents than through viewing his art. He was a poet and editorialized with poems. He obviously read everything in print available throughout the world as new inventions, economic growth, moral and religious issues, jokes and humor and the development of the Industrial Revolution are commented on weekly.
Porter spent a great deal of his life designing various inventions that he either sold the rights to, or would patent the design and never manufacture it. Jean Lipman states: "Had he not so inadequately promoted his inventions and so casually disposed of them, he would have been known as one of the greatest of American inventors. Instead, he became a mechanical Johnny Appleseed sowing seed of new and ingenious ideas as he traveled through New England and abroad through his journals... When you consider the importance...” (p.35).
Rufus Porter designed over 100 inventions and patented about a quarter of his ideas. He is best known for the design of a revolving rifle which he sold to Samuel Colt for $100 in 1836 (the exact date in which he sold his design is in question, Lipman states that he sold his designs in 1844, though new evidence has come to light to support the theory that Porter sold his designs several years prior).
In 1820, while traveling on foot, he invented the main ideas for a dirigible Porter called an "aeroport," and constructed his first model in 1833. It was not until 1841 that he began to promote the airship in American Mechanic. And in 1847-1848, he exhibited a small working model in New York City. In 1850 a larger model was exhibited in Boston and New York and then in 1853 a 22-foot model was demonstrated in Washington, D.C.
Although his ideas were ridiculed at the time in the press, he successfully demonstrated his model circling the rotunda 11 times in the Merchant's Exchange in New York, but having no funds to develop it, he petitioned the US Senate in 1851 for $5,000 to produce a working practical utility. This was referred to committees and the appeal died. In 1852 he trie selling $5 shares of stock in "Aerial Navigation Company," and in 1852-1853 he started a bi-weekly newspaper in Washington, D.C. He sold 600 shares and began an aeroport, but met with disasters like severe storms, vandalism and the varnish he used caused the canvas to disintegrate with not enough funds to continue.
In 1869 at 77 years old, he was still optimistic that he would succeed. Although he was never successful, Lipman states that his 50 years of effort "played a significant, though now almost forgotten, part in the history of aerial navigation." He died in 1884 in West Haven, Connecticut while visiting his youngest child, Frank Rufus Porter. He is buried in West Haven in the Oak Grove Cemetery.
Rufus Porter, Yankee Pioneer, 1968, by Jean Lipman, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., New York, NY
Rufus Porter Rediscovered, 1980, by Jean Lipman, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., New York, NY
A Yankee Inventor's Flying Ship, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, MN
Aerial Navigation, New York, 1849
An Aerial Steamer, or Flying Ship, Washington, D.C., 1850