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 Laboratory.
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 (Charlottesville, 1976).
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 book, 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 Stellafane.
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
For a complete biography, see Berton C. Willard, Russell W. Porter(Freeport, Maine, 1976)