Rufus Porter: Wikis


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For the American football player see Rufus Porter (American football). For the American poet see Rufus L. Porter.

Rufus Porter
Rufus Porter oil painting
Rufus Porter advertisement for his 1849 New York to California transport
Rufus Porter mural in the Kent House, Lyme, New Hampshire
Title page of Porter's pamphlet of 1849

Rufus M. Porter (May 1, 1792 - August 13, 1884) was an American painter, inventor, and founder of Scientific American magazine.


Famous family

Rufus Porter descended from a New England family. The family's first immigrants to the US were Mary and John Porter (c1600-1676) who emigrated from Dorset, England to Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1600s. When John died in 1676 he was the largest landowner around, owning property that included the modern cities of Salem, Danvers, Wenham, Beverly, Topsfield and Boxford, Massachusetts. Later descendants included Benjamin Porter, who was Rufus' great-grandfather. Benjamin moved to West Boxford in 1716 and became the wealthiest man there. His descendants include ministers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, an army colonel, a ship's captain, a professor of mathematics and several legislative members. He was related by marriage to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Honorable Rufus King (minister to England) and Harriet Porter Beecher, stepmother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The family farm descended to Abigail and Tyler Porter, parents of Rufus Porter.

Birth and education

Porter was born in West Boxford, Massachusetts. He was one of six children. His father was Tyler Porter and his mother was Abigail Johnson. Rufus started school at age 4. The family farm was sold in 1801 and the family moved to Maine when Rufus was 9 years old. They lived in Pleasant Mountain Gore, now part of Bridgton. At age 12 Rufus attended the Fryeburg Academy for six months.


In 1815 Rufus married Eunice Twombly (c1795-1848) of Portland, Maine, and they had ten children together, including: Stephen Twombly Porter (1816-1850); Rufus King Porter (1820-1903); Sylvanus Frederick Porter (1823-?); John Randolph Porter (1825-?); Edward Leroy Porter (1827-?); Nancy Adams Porter (1829-1877); Ellen Augusta Porter (1831-?); and Washington Irving Porter (1834-1836).


By 1816 Porter was living in New Haven, Connecticut, where he had a dancing school and began painting portraits. In 1818-1819 he made a trading voyage to the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, and in 1819 Porter had returned to painting. He traveled by coach and on foot, painting portraits throughout New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. He became a prolific muralist between 1825 and 1845, decorating some 160 houses and inns in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and as far south as Virginia. From simple silhouettes to scenes of entire towns or harbors, Porter spread his art throughout New England. His murals were generally executed in a large scale on dry plaster walls by a combination of freehand painting and stenciling. Some murals were in full color, others in monochrome, with the foliage sometimes stamped in with a cork stopper instead of being painted with a brush. Often he would do portraits of the principal household members where he was doing the murals.

Second marriage

In 1849 he married Emma Tallman Edgar (1820-?) of Roxbury, Massachusetts, and fathered an additional six children. All the children died in infancy except: Rufus Frank Porter (1859-?) aka Frank Rufus Porter.


During much of this time, and afterwards, Porter was a prolific inventor. During 1825-1826 he published four editions of A Select Collection of Valuable and Curious Arts, and Interesting Experiments. He built a portable camera obscura that let him make silhouette portraits in less than 15 minutes. (He charged 20 cents apiece for them.) He experimented with a wind-powered gristmill, a washing machine, a corn sheller, a fire alarm, a rope-making machine, and a camera. He invented clocks, railway signals, churns, a distance measuring appliance, a horsepower mechanism, a churn, a life preserver, a cheese press, and a revolving rifle. Typical of his inability to capitalize on his genius, he sold the rights to the revolving rifle to Samuel Colt for $100; Colt eventually developed it into the Colt 45.

Scientific American

In 1841 he bought an interest in the New York mechanic, which he published and edited in New York. The first issue of this magazine was published on 1841-01-02, and was subtitled the advocate of industry and enterprise, and journal of mechanical, and other scientific improvements. After 23 weekly issues Porter moved the magazine to Boston and renamed it American mechanic, with the same sub-title. In this journal he published his plans for the rotary plow, hot air ventilation system, and advertised his general patent agency run in connection with the paper. The magazine survived through 106 issues, the last known one being on 1843-01-21.[1][2]

In 1845 he started a new weekly, Scientific American, but 10 months later sold it to Orson Desaix Munn I and Alfred Ely Beach. The opening for the first issue of Scientific American is a follows:

Scientific American published every Thursday morning at No. 11 Spruce Street, New York, No. 16 State Street, Boston, and No. 2l Arcade Philadelphia, (The principle office being in New York) by Rufus Porter. Each number will be furnished with from two to five original Engravings, many of them elegant, and illustrative of New Inventions, Scientific Principles, and Curious Works; and will contain, in addition to the most interesting news of passing events, general notices of progress of Mechanical and other Scientific Improvements; American and Foreign. Improvements and Inventions; Catalogues of American Patents; Scientific Essays, illustrative of the principles of the sciences of Mechanics, Chemistry, and Architecture: useful information and instruction in various Arts and Trades; Curious Philosophical Experiments; Miscellaneous Intelligence, Music and Poetry. This paper is especially entitled to the patronage of Mechanics and Manufactures, being the only paper in America, devoted to the interest of those classes; but is particularly useful to farmers, as it will not only appraise them of improvements in agriculture implements, But instruct them in various mechanical trades, and guard them against impositions As a family newspaper, it will convey more useful intelligence to children and young people, than five times its cost in school instruction. Another important argument in favor of this paper, is that it will be worth two (dollars at the end of the year when the volume is complete, (Old volumes of the New York Mechanic, being now worth double the original cost, in cash.) Terms: The "Scientific American" will be furnished to subscribers at $2.00 per annum, - one dollar in advance, and the balance in six months. Five copies will be sent to one address six months for four dollars in advance. Any person procuring two or more subscribers, will be entitled to a commission of 25 cents each


In 1849 Porter planned to build an 800-foot steam-powered airship with accommodations for 50 to 100 passengers, aiming to convey miners to the California Gold Rush. He had already built and flown several scale models in Boston and New York. He advertised New York-to-California service, asking a $50 down payment for a $200 fare, and began building immediately. His first "aeroport" was 240 feet long; it was destroyed by a tornado. Later that year, he began a 700-foot version with new backers, but during a showing of the almost-complete dirigible on Thanksgiving Day, rowdy visitors tore the hydrogen bag and destroyed it. In 1854 his third attempt ended with technical troubles.

Death and burial

Porter died on August 13, 1884 at the home of his son, Rufus Frank Porter (1859-?), in West Haven, Connecticut. He was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery, West Haven, Connecticut.


Scientific American wrote on November 8, 1884:

One of our English contemporaries, Invention, in referring to the life and genius of the late Rufus Porter, pays a compliment to the energy, ingenuity, and versatility of the American in contrast with the Englishman, whose idea, the editor thinks, is generally confined to fitting himself for a single pursuit in life. That the true genius of the American people is inventive and mechanical is a self evident proposition," says the writer, "and it would appear as though invention, relatively speaking, has flourished more in the United States than in all the rest of the world, making due allowance for time. Born in the presidency of the illustrious Washington, Rufus Porter lived through the reigns of twenty-one American Presidents, and was himself a living representative of the genius of American invention for over three-quarters of a century. From the first he was the true type of the smart American boy, who, so far from being impressed by the Carlylean idea of the great dignity of personal work in its manual forms, was nothing unless a labor saving machine in its most comprehensive shape. Thus Rufus Porter began his long career of usefulness as an inventor of turbine water wheels, windmills, flying ships, rotary engines, and sundry contrivances for abolishing as far as possible agricultural labor. He was as a youth, too, an ardent patriot, and in truth half a dozen other things, each of which if followed up fully might have sufficed to secure to most men a reasonable amount of distinction and prosperity. He fought against the British, and this occupation -- a mere interlude in a life crowded with incidents, and usually at the white heat of some newly found enterprise -- naturally led to the elaboration of war engines; and his well known revolving rifle enabled Colonel Colt to reproduce the revolving pistol, which initiated a host of small firearms on the same principle. For Rufus Porter, however, there was neither rest nor supreme success in any decade of his singularly active and abnormally busy career. He was a schoolmaster, a portrait painter by turns, and he founded the Scientific American, the greatest and best of all American mechanical papers, and one that indeed is unsurpassed in its new lines by any journal extant. Clocks, railway signals, churns, washing machines, and other appliances were among the many fruits of his active brain, and it was doubtless to this fecundity that his comparative failure in a worldly sense was due. His inventions were in a manner cast aside as soon as he had roughly completed them, and, heedless of the commercial phases of invention, this wonderfully prolific genius passed on to make a fresh essay in the great work of saving human manual labor -- which is the real end of all truly American progress, and the main object of American civilization. To give a detailed account of all that Rufus Porter accomplished or attempted in the great field of invention would altogether transcend the limits of our space; but although a contemporary, writing of this great and original inventor, has remarked, that in spite of all he did and wrote, and the very extraordinary length of time accorded to him, he has gone to the grave leaving a name "writ in water," we still think that in the world of invention his name will be fully blazoned as a material benefactor to his fellow men. No doubt, this career, so rich in actual matter of fact result, illustrates fully the different conditions of life in England and America, in regard to the encouragement given to inventors in the respective countries. Here the whole course of education, and the entire bias of prejudice, is toward each man equipping himself for a single well defined pursuit. In no country in the world is the saying more relished than that of a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none, whereas in the United States it is precisely the reverse. There, in a still new country, handiness and ready adaptability is everything, and every possible encouragement is fully given to that versatility which has so little, comparatively speaking, in this country with its well defined and strictly preserved paths of infinitely subdivided industries. Probably in both countries, "the falsehood of extremes" is sufficiently illustrated, and each would gain by a process of mutual adoption and adaptation of native peculiarities. There can be no doubt but that in America, invention has been more versatile and, to borrow a now familiar phrase, more "differentiated" than among ourselves, while here it has achieved in certain lines greater results, perhaps due only to the concentrativeness of the English mind. We believe for our own part that it is wholesome for Americans to study English, and for Englishmen to study American inventors. The mutual lesson is sure to be mutually profitable. Meanwhile we may add in conclusion that although he has not in any sense attained the fame and eminence of Morse, a Howe, or Edison, Rufus Porter will live as one of the best and brightest examples of the versatility of American invention.


Selected writings

  • 1825 A Select Collection of Valuable and Curious Arts, and Interesting Experiments
  • 1849 Aerial Navigation: The Practicality of Traveling Pleasantly and Safely from New York to California in Three Days

Selected murals


  1. ^ Union list of serials..., third edition, New York, H. W. Wilson, 1965, vol. 1, p. 278
  2. ^ Frederick Converse Beach, editor, The Americana, 1904-1906, at vol. 12, under "Porter, Rufus"

Further reading

  • Lipman, Jean, Rufus Porter Rediscovered; Clarkson W. Potter, Inc., Publishers; New York, New York; 1980
  • Lipman, Jean, "Rufus Porter, Yankee Pioneer"; Clarkson W. Potter, Inc. Publishers; New York, New York; 1969

External links



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