Russell Porter, artist, explorer, engineer, turned his hobby into an observatory of unprecedented scale in California. Although he was a trained architect, Russell Porter is known as a scientist, photographer, surveyor, and inventor and played a pivotal role in the development of the Palomar Observatory. Though he never foresaw telescope design in his career plans, Porter was intimately involved in the design and other aspects of the Glass Giant, the 200-inch-diameter telescope on Palomar Mountain. In 1915, Porter returned to MIT as a professor of architecture. When the United States entered World War I, Hartness advised the National Bureau of Standards to retain Porter to develop manufacturing techniques for optical instruments, including prisms and reflecting surfaces. Russell Porter’s work remains visible on the Cal Tech campus in Pasadena. A visit to the corridors of the astrophysics building reveals spectacular cosmic images of distant galaxies and nebula along with 30 of Porter’s more than 1000 cutaway design drawings of telescopes.



Commencement in 1946 was a special occasion at Norwich University, Vermont's oldest engineering and military academy. World War 11 had ended the previous year. It had produced remarkable advances in technology with peacetime potential. The first postwar graduation provided an opportunity for remembrance, celebration, recognition, and defining future opportunities and challenges.

The 55-year-old General Dwight David Eisenhower was on hand to receive an honorary doctorate. In six years, he would be elected the 34th President of the United States.

Sharing the commencement honors was 74-year-old Russell Porter, who had driven east from the California Institute of Technology. Porter required a lengthy citation. He had been a cadet at Norwich, an Arctic adventurer and scientist, photographer, surveyor, mapmaker, and artist. He was a mechanical genius, telescope designer, writer, a leader of the most ambitious celestial observatory in history, an architect by training, mechanical designer, inventor, and builder by profession, artist by native ability, giver of avocational enjoyment to uncounted common people of whom he was proud of being one, and a living example of the truth that the most effective instructor of human beings is himself the most human.

After the reception, Porter and his wife, Alice, traveled to Portland, Maine, to visit their daughter Caroline. By coincidence, the battleship Missouri, on which the Japanese had surrendered the previous September, was an- chored in the harbor. The always-inquisitive Porter wanted to see it.

He had assisted the war effort by designing and drawing machines and innovative combat support devices. He had been dubbed the Cutaway Man by the planners in the Pentagon for his skills at sketching the internals of complicated machinery.

Porter boarded the battleship and showed copies of his drawings to the captain and crew. In turn, Porter was allowed to examine the turret, bearings, and control system of the 16-inch guns that could fire 2,700-pound projectiles a distance of 23 miles. He noted the similarities and differences between the mounting and control requirements of large guns and telescopes.

Porter next traveled to Springfield, Vt., for the first postwar gathering of the amateur telescope makers and astronomers group he had organized in 1920. After meeting old and new friends and comparing ideas about making and using their telescopes, the Porters drove back to California, where he would devote his remaining years to the completion of the observatory on Palomar Mountain.

For two decades the 200-inch-diameter reflector telescope known as the Glass Giant had been a highly publicized work in progress with an uncertain future. It was popularly described as the world's largest scientific instrument. George Ellery Hale, who started the project, had died in 1938. Porter along with Edwin Hubble, who had proposed the radical idea of an expanding universe, lived to attend the 1948 dedication.

Russell Porter would die in 1949 of a heart attack at the age of 77 while working on his next telescope project.

Porter was born in 1871 as the youngest of five children in the village of Spring-field, Vt., which would become famous for its precision machine tool companies.

His father, Frederick, born in 1823, was a creative and industrious man. At the age of 11 he had built a small steam engine to power a boat; at 18 he traveled to New York to learn the newly commercialized photographic processes and he also learned the trade of jeweler.

He returned to Springfield to marry Caroline Sisby of nearby Charlestown, N.H., and later established a manufacturing business that specialized in toy baby carriages.

Russell showed an early talent for drawing and a restless nature. He studied engineering for a year at Norwich University and then at the University of Vermont. In 1891, he moved to Boston to study architecture and art at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while working as a building appraiser.

Arctic Fever

Porter caught what he would call Arctic fever when, in 1892, he attended a lecture by Robert Peary, who described his latest explorations in northern Greenland, which he had proved to be an island. The next year, the scientist Frederick Cook came to Boston to advertise a summer cruise up the coast of Greenland. Porter negotiated passage on Cook's voyage by offering to serve as surveyor and artist.


This would be the first of Porter's eight northern adventures over the next 15 years. The first ended above the Arctic Circle, when the small steamship was first damaged on a reef and then collided with an iceberg. The crew was rescued by Eskimos and returned to ,. Boston by fishing boat.

Porter would confess to an excitement that he could not describe upon entering the Arctic Circle, although he was still 1,500 miles from the North Pole, which remained beyond anyone's reach. A better-equipped expedition would be required. Porter was determined to be on the first one to reach the top of our globe.

In 1896, he joined Peary on a scientific voyage to northern Greenland and in 1897 he traveled to unexplored regions of Baffin Island. In 1898, he joined the Yukon gold rush, in 1899 explored Labrador, and in 1900 was back in northern Greenland.


In 1901, Porter joined a party that would try to reach the pole. The group, financed by New York businessman William Ziegler, was to start at Norway's Spitsbergen Islands, but logistical failures cut short the expedition. They tried again the next year from the Russian chain of islands Franz Josef Land. After the explorers set up camp on an island, the ship was crushed by the ice and sank.

Although he was stranded, Porter made gallant attempts to travel the rough ice north to the pole. He then busied himself with exploring the island, sketching and making handicrafts for other expedition members to help retain morale, and using his surveying transit as a telescope to explore the sky on the long Arctic nights . After the group had been stranded for more than two years, a rescue ship arrived, in late 1905. Porter traveled . to the National Geographic Society's headquarters in Washington to prepare for publication of the scientific findings from the expedition.

Lust for Adventure Peaks

Porter's lust for adventure was still not cured. Frederick Cook was planning to explore the Alaskan wilderness and asked Porter to join his party as a surveyor. Cook's goal was to be the first to conquer Alaska's highest peak, the 20,230-foot Mount McKinley.

Cook's party arrived at the southwest side of Mount McKinley in May 1906. Porter soon concluded that each of the proposed routes to the top was too obstructed. Cook responded by breaking up the party. Porter proceeded to survey a 3,000-square-mile region. The results were eventually published by the United States Geological Survey. Porter also painted a watercolor of the mountain.

The parties reunited after several weeks. Cook said he had successfully reached the summit. Porter was skeptical. Cook would withhold his public announcement of the climb until after 1909, when he made the claim that he had reached the North Pole a few months before Robert Peary.

Subsequent investigations concluded that both of Cook's claims were false. Fifteen years later, he would be convicted and imprisoned for fraud in an oil lease scandal. Peary's claim to have reached the Pole was generally accepted, but more recent investigations of his logbook raise some doubt that he actually got there.

At the age of 35, Porter finally had his Arctic fever under control, but not his passion for adventure. He had survived extreme physical punishment, frostbite, avalanches, and polar bear attacks in remarkably good health, except for a substantial loss of hearing. It was time to refocus his talent and energy.

Porter decided to start an art colony. He bought land and a farmhouse near the fishing village of Port Clyde on the Maine coast. He built 14 cottages for aspiring artists from Boston. He married the postmaster's daughter, Alice Marshall.

Porter's next project was to make his first telescope. As a surveyor he had become fascinated with optics. He was also encouraged by his good friend, the pioneering machine tool inventor and executive James Hartness, who lived in Porter's hometown of Springfield. Hartness was also an amateur astronomer and telescope builder, and would serve as president of ASME and later become governor of Vermont. (Hartness was the subject of an article, "Renaissance Tool Man," in the November 1999 issue of Mechanical Engineering.)

In 1913, Hartness sent Porter two 16-inch-diameter glass discs along with some telescope building ideas and literature.

Using abrasives between the two discs, Porter ground and polished his first reflector. He built a den on his house to serve as a comfortable observatory for viewing on cold nights. A novel technique was the use of a fixed tube, lined up with the polar axis and topped with a flat mirror that could be adjusted to track the stars or moon. Porter was pleased with the results and proceeded to write articles describing his techniques for Popular Astronomy and Scientific American.

Using his telescope, Porter spent his evenings sketching the topological features and shadows of the moon in all of its phases. Hartness was overcome by the beauty and exactness of these lunar drawings, which were published in Popular Astronomy.

Porter's biographer, Berton Willard, interviewed Caroline, a daughter born in 1912, who recalled that when she was a child, her father had shown her how to make her own telescope.

In 1915, Porter returned to MIT as a professor of architecture. When the United States entered World War I, Hartness advised the National Bureau of Standards to retain Porter to develop manufacturing techniques for optical instruments, including prisms and reflecting surfaces.

When the fighting ended in 1918, Hartness had new plans for Porter. The precision of machined products such as screw threads was traditionally measured by mechanical gauges. Hartness envisioned the potential for optical techniques. His Jones and Lamson Machine Co. hired Porter as an optical and mechanical engineer. The task was challenging, but Porter developed a machine called a comparator that he patented with Hartness. It projected an enlargement of the actual thread upon a drawing of the thread, thus giving a prompt visual picture of the quality. This represented a birth of optical methods in machining processes.

Stellafane is Born

A typical employee at the machine company came from the surrounding farms that were nestled in the Green Mountain valleys. Schooling was considered a luxury.

Some had shown interest in Porter's activities. Porter, with the encouragement of Hartness and the help of a journeyman machinist named Oscar Marshall, formed a club to teach telescope making. Factory workers and members of the community were welcome.

The first meeting was in the company lunchroom in August 1920. Porter showed how to grind and polish a reflecting mirror, and how to use the light beam technique of French scientist Leon Foucault to measure the focusing performance of the curved surface. The machinists, who normally worked with tolerances of a thousandth of an inch, were shocked to learn that a precision of a millionth of an inch would be required, but readily accepted the new challenge.


Porter described the other requirements, including the tube, eyepiece, and mount. He encouraged participants to use their creativity in using salvaged parts from other machines, since the members did not have much money to spend on a hobby. It remains a part of the culture of amateur telescope makers to take pride in making their instruments on a small budget.

By the next summer, 16 telescopes were completed. Next came evenings on nearby hilltops for instruction in observational astronomy. Porter was pleased to realize that the telescope makers soon understood the spatial principles of finding and tracking planets, stars, and galaxies.

Porter had inherited some land on nearby Breezy Hill. Hartness, who had been elected governor of Vermont in 1920, donated money toward a clubhouse and a permanent observatory. Porter designed a temple-like structure that had an inside similar to a ship's cabin , with low-beamed ceiling and fireplace. The walls were lined with pictures of telescopes, celestial objects, and famous astronomers

A library was started with donations from the Harvard Observatory. Porter suggested the name Stellar Fane, meaning "a shrine to the stars ." It was contracted to Stellafane.

"The Heavens Declare the Glory of God" was carved on the north gable. A merchant donated some paint that he could not sell, so the clubhouse was painted pink as a proud statement of frugality.

In 1923, Calvin Coolidge of nearby Plymouth became the first Vermont native since Union College alumnus Chester Arthur to become President of the United States. This stimulated national interest in the small and remote state with an idyllic image. Stellafane provided a quaint public interest story. In 1924, it was featured in Collier's Weekly and Century Magazine.

Scientific American's editor, Albert Ingalls, invited Porter to New York. Over dinner at a restaurant, Porter suggested that astronomy would have more meaning to Ingalls if he made his own telescope. Ingalls recalled that Porter then excitedly jumped to his feet. Putting two plates together on a serving table he proceeded, to the astonishment of the other diners, to demonstrate how to grind a lens.

Ingalls' cover story in the November 1925 issue of Scientific American would contain the first of many informative and poignant articles about Porter and his mentoring of factory workers and townspeople in the art and science of telescopes and astronomy.

Recruited by a Starwatcher

George Ellery Hale was arguably the most important astronomer of Porter's generation. He read Jules Verne's 1865 fantasy From the Earth to the Moon, which described a giant reflector telescope in the Rocky Mountains. Astronomy became Hale's obsession. It took him first to MIT and then to the Harvard Observatory

In the era before government funding for science, money for telescopes had to be raised from private sources, a process that Hale mastered. In 1906, he was offered the position as president of MIT. Alexander Graham Bell recommended him for secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He declined both offers to continue building observatories. Hale had previously solicited funds from Charles Tyson Yerkes to build a 40-inch refractor in Wisconsin that was the world's biggest in 1897.

Next, Hale raised funds for a 100-inch reflector telescope north of Pasadena on Mount Wilson in 1917. It was here that observations of the red shift of distant galaxies led Edwin Hubble to conclude that the universe is expanding. The initially incredulous Albert Einstein came to visit and had to abandon his own assumption of a static universe.

The location of the Mount Wilson observatory was also instrumental in the creation of the California Institute of Technology as a premier research university in a remarkably short time, with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Millikan as president and with Hale as an important advisor and recruiter of talent.

By 1927, Hale had initial funding for a 200-inch telescope, although experts were skeptical that such a device was possible. While light-gathering ability increases with the square of the lens diameter, the complexity and problems increase at a substantially higher rate. The experts at the National Bureau of Standards had concluded that any functional telescope larger than 100 inches was technically impossible. The jump from 100 to 200 inches was truly a giant and uncertain undertaking.

Porter had never considered the possibility of being paid to design a telescope.

Hale knew that he needed new ideas. Ingalls suggested Russell Porter. Porter, then 57 years old, had never considered the possibility of being paid to design a telescope. For the next 20 years, Porter would be intimately involved in each decision that ultimately led to success.

Problems with a 200-inch disc were the ability to cast it without cracking, distortion caused by thermal expansion, and the ability to grind and polish to a millionth of an inch precision. Fused quartz was proposed by Elihu Thomson, who had been a co-founder of General Electric.

After initial problems, Coming Glass Works succeeded in casting the 14-ton Pyrex disc in 1934. The back had ribs and cores like a waffle iron to retain rigidity while reducing weight. It took a year to cool. It crossed the country by rail, with newspapers and radio commentary keeping the public informed of its daily progress.

The mounting, Porter said, needed the strength of a bridge and the precise movement of a Swiss watch.

Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co. constructed the massive fork and horseshoe mounting. The bearings floated the telescope on pressurized oil. This eliminated static friction. The fork is installed parallel to the axis of the Earth and rotates to allow tracking along the east-west ascension axis. The telescope mounted within the fork rotates around the north-south declination axis.

The grinding and polishing of the disc into a parabolic mirror was started in the expanded optical shop at Cal Tech, but was interrupted by the war. It resumed in 1946. Previous reflector telescopes had been silver-coated to enhance reflectivity. A new method of placing the mirror in a vacuum chamber and applying a thin film of aluminum on the surface by vapor deposition improved surface quality and reflectivity

A site was needed away from the urban lights that were interfering with Mount Wilson, which borders the north side of the Los Angeles basin. One hundred sites were surveyed over five years for nights of good viewing and seismic stability. Palomar Mountain, located 130 miles to the southeast, was chosen.

While Porter's work was vital to the ultimate postwar success of the largest scientific instrument of the era, he also made other contributions in the' 40s, including work on the design of new wind and water tunnels with the legendary aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman, who was director of the Aeronautical Laboratory.

The Cutaway Man also organized amateur telescope makers to make optical components in support of the war effort.

Russell Porter's work remains visible on the Cal Tech campus in Pasadena. A visit to the corridors of the astrophysics building reveals spectacular cosmic images of distant galaxies and nebula along with 30 of Porter's more than 1,000 cutaway design drawings of telescopes.

Russell Porter's work remains visible on the Cal Tech campus in Pasadena. A visit to the corridors of the astrophysics building reveals spectacular cosmic images of distant galaxies and nebula along with 30 of Porter's more than 1,000 cutaway design drawings of telescopes.

An art critic observed that even if Porter's drawings had been done from the completed projects they would be judged extraordinary, but to realize that any artist or designer had the imagination to create these pictures from blueprints is beyond imagination.

Back in Vermont, Porter's legacy lives on, as amateur telescope makers and astronomers from around the world gather at the annual Stellafane convention and at the observatory at the Hartness home in Springfield. Hartness called Porter his Leonardo da Vinci. He once suggested that Porter sell his spectacular drawings of the moon, but wryly added that Porter always ran the other way at the sight of a dollar.

The majestic Hartness home is now an inn that displays a collection of Russell Porter's works.