Scope of the Collection
Title: The Drawings Of Russell W. Porter,
Date (inclusive): 1928-1945
Porter, Russell W.
Extent: Linear feet: 1.5
California Institute of Technology. Archives.
Pasadena, California 91125
Collection is open for research.
Copyright has not been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All
requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing
to the Head of the Archives. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the
California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and is not
intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be
obtained by the reader.
[Identification of item, Box and file number], The Drawings Of Russell W. Porter,
Archives, California Institute of Technology.
Although trained as an architect, Russell Williams Porter (1871-1949) made his principal
mark in the field of astronomy, in both the technical and popular realms of the
discipline. He served as a member of the design team for the 200-inch Palomar
telescope-then the biggest telescope in the world-but he is also widely recognized in the
U.S. as a leader in the amateur telescope making movement.
Porter was born in Springfield, Vermont, on December 13, 1871, and attended the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied to be an architect. While still
at MIT he attended a stereopticon lecture by Robert E. Peary in 1892-this was some years
before Peary's discovery of the North Pole. Smitten with "arctic fever," Porter urged
Peary to include him in his next expedition, but Peary declined. However, over the next
thirteen years Porter would make six arctic forays, three of these with Peary. On the
last of these, with the Fiala-Ziegler expedition, the party lost their ship to ice floes
and were marooned in Franz Josef Land for two years. Porter himself never reached the
North Pole, but during these arctic excursions, he taught himself celestial navigation
and timekeeping by the stars. He also recorded in many drawings and paintings his own
adventures in, and impressions of, the arctic world. These are published in part in
The Arctic Diary of Russell Williams Porter, ed. Herman Friis
Porter returned from Franz Josef Land to Maine, married and established himself as an
architect, building a little community at Port Clyde on the coast. By 1910 he had begun
to study telescope making, and he would continue to study and build instruments, and to
encourage other amateurs to do so for the rest of his life. In 1915 Porter returned to
Boston to teach architecture at MIT. Towards the end of World War I, he was called to the
National Bureau of Standards to put his knowledge of optics to use. Then, having been
invited by his childhood friend James Hartness to work in the latter's precision tool
manufacturing company, Porter returned to his old home in Springfield, Vermont.
During these years in Springfield, Porter's fame as a telescope maker spread. His local
club, the Telescope Makers of Springfield, with their clubhouse Stellafane (temple of the
stars, completed in 1924), was written up in
The Scientific American. That
magazine's editor, Albert G. Ingalls, collaborated with Porter in the writing of the
Amateur Telescope Making, which became a bible in its field. Annual
conventions began to take place during summers at Stellafane.
In 1928, Porter was recruited by George Ellery Hale, the Director of the Mount Wilson
Observatory in Pasadena and himself a famous solar astronomer, to work on the
construction of the new 200-inch telescope. The world's largest telescope would
eventually be operated by the California Institute of Technology in cooperation with the
Carnegie Institution of Washington. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the
construction of the observatory and telescope on Palomar Mountain in San Diego County
took approximately twenty years. During these years, Porter undertook the architectural
designs for the necessary shops, labs and offices on the Caltech campus, and he
contributed substantially to the mechanical and optical design work for the telescope.
Almost every summer he managed to return to Vermont for the annual conventions at
One particular aspect of Porter's genius was his ability to do three-dimensional cutaway
drawings of all kinds of mechanical objects. He had perfected this skill during work on
the 200-inch telescope. With the outbreak of World War II he found that his draftman's
skills were highly desired by the military to demonstrate the design of rockets and other
ordnance and equipment prior to the building of prototypes. Porter also became closely
involved in the design and production of the so-called roof prism, used in new,
high-precision optical sights on artillery.
Although he had suffered a serious heart attack as early as 1935, Porter hoped to live,
and did live-unlike Hale-to see the completion of the 200-inch telescope, which was
dedicated on June 3, 1948. Porter died at his home in Pasadena on February 22, 1949.
For a complete biography, see Berton C. Willard,
Russell W. Porter(Freeport, Maine, 1976).
Scope of the Collection
The drawings of Russell W. Porter in the Caltech Archives represent only a small portion
of his output, but they range over a variety of subjects from his California period,
beginning in 1928. The works have been divided into series and subseries; for example,
building designs for Caltech are further subdivided for individual structures. Highlights
of the collection include original design proposals for the 200-inch telescope mount, in
both schematic and three-dimensional/cutaway form, plus a series of drawing of Hale's
spectrohelioscope. Some of Porter's military drawings are also represented, as well as
miscellaneous drawings of Caltech engineering projects such as the Hydrodynamics
Many of the drawings have been reproduced and scanned into the Caltech Archives' picture
database, PhotoNet, which is searchable from the Archives' website at:
In the following catalog, the number in square brackets at the end of an entry, beginning
with the letters RWP, represents the PhotoNet identification number. For example, in
Section I, Series I, item number 8 has the PhotoNet number RWP1.1-8.
Charlotte E. Erwin
The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection.
Porter, Russell W.
Hale, George Ellery
California Institute of Technology