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Rufus Porter descended from an old colonial New England family. The family's first immigrants to the US were Mary and John Porter (c. 1600–1676) who emigrated from Dorset, England to Salem, Massachusetts in the early 17th century. 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 1807 he was apprenticed to a shoemaker.
In 1815 Rufus married Eunice Twombly (c. 1795–1848) 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.
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–?), also known as Frank Rufus Porter.
During much of this time, and afterwards, Porter was a prolific inventor. His obituary described 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."
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.
Porter was noted as missing opportunities to turn his inventions into commercial success. He invented the revolving rifle but sold the rights to Samuel Colt for $100, and the design was permanently shelved.
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.
Scientific American published every Thursday morning at No. 11 Spruce Street, New York, No. 16 State Street, Boston, and No. 2l Arcade Philadelphia, (The principal 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 legacy
Porter's obituary in the Scientific American described his remarkable life and "abnormally busy career", which had seen 21 American Presidents take office. The magazine pronounced "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... 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."
- 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
Murals by Porter
- Birchwood Inn, Temple, New Hampshire
- Daniel Carr House, North Haverhill, New Hampshire
- Benjamin Cleaves House, Bridgton, Maine (Rufus Porter Museum)
- Eaton House, Bradford, New Hampshire
- Hancock Inn, Hancock, New Hampshire
- Kent House, Lyme, New Hampshire
- Prescott Homestead, Jaffrey, New Hampshire
- Reed Homestead, Townsend, Massachusetts
- Walter Russell House, Ashburnham, Massachusetts; part of the Cambridge Grant Historic District
- Mural House, Greene, Maine
- 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
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