Earlier this year, I learned that the founding editor of Scientific American Magazine, Rufus Porter, was an artist—an influential muralist and prolific portrait painter at that. I also learned that there's a museum dedicated to him in Bridgton, Maine. So as one does, I added the destination to a summer road trip itinerary (making note of nearby ice cream stands) and made the pilgrimage earlier this month.
Scientific American’s pending 170th anniversary was on my mind. We have Rufus Porter to thank for that. From the inaugural four-page broadsheet dated August 28, 1845:
Porter’s role as publisher didn't last long.
“After running it for six months [note that Porter remains on the masthead as editor until May 29, 1847], the desire and necessity for a change came over him, and he decided to stop the issue and return to New England. At this juncture, just before the last number or two were to be published, he gladly arranged with the present proprietors [in 1884, O.D. Munn and A.E. Beach of Munn & Co.],…to continue the publication, and on receipt of a very satisfactory compensation he transferred to them all his interests, consisting of the title, a subscription list of about two hundred names, some old types, and cuts. The first half century of Mr. Porter’s life practically closed with the foundation of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN.” — From “Rufus Porter, Founder of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN,” an obituary in Scientific American, September 6, 1884
The intense but short-lived attention wasn't unusual, as characterized by another except from that obituary:
“In 1813 he painted sleighs at Denmark, Me.; beat the drum for the soldiers, taught others to do the same, and wrote a book on the art of drumming. This probably was his first book publication. In 1814 he was enrolled in the militia for the defense of the country, and was for several months in actual service; after this he taught school at Baldwin, married at Portland, taught at Waterford, made wind grist mills at Portland, painted in Boston, the same on through New York and New Jersey to Baltimore and Alexandria Va. A peculiarity which he developed about this time, and which continued through life, was a frequent change of place and occupation. Although he might be doing well at the business which for the time engaged his attention, he would sell out and abandon it the moment a new idea came into his mind. He could not hold fast to one thing or to one place for any considerable length of time. His brain was an overflowing fountain of new ideas and active projects. One of his most profitable businesses at this time was portrait painting...”
At the museum, volunteer coordinator Beth Cossey walked our small group through several of Porter’s artworks from his pre-Scientific American days as a traveling artist and inventor. Most notable were the mural and portrait techniques he developed to quickly and efficiently produce imagery, such as stencils and the use of a camera obscura.
Instead of guarding those techniques—and many others—as trade secrets, he published them, first in Curious Arts (1825) and later as a series of columns in Scientific American. As museum executive director John Michalowski, Jr. suggested, it seems as though he didn't consider his painting techniques a success unless others could reproduce them.
If painting dominated the decade or two before Porter founded Scientific American, his identity as an inventor perhaps best characterized his years after selling the publication.
“During the remaining half century, nearly, of his life, he was chiefly occupied with his inventions, and moved from place to place, but did not so often recur to his old profession of portrait painting. He was now very prolific with inventions. The moment a new thing occurred to him, be made a drawing and description and sold the whole or a share for a small sum; and then worked out some other idea, to be sold in the same manner. The mere catalogue of his inventions would be tedious. Among them were a flying ship, an air blower, punching press, trip hammer, pocket lamp, pocket chair, fog whistle, wire cutter, engine lathe, clothes drier, grain weigher, camera obscura, spring pistol, engine cut off, balanced valve, revolvidal boat, rotary plow, reaction wind wheel, portable house, paint mill, water lifter, odometer, thermo engine, rotary engine, and scores of other inventions.” —Scientific American, September 6, 1884
As associate director Samantha Scarf noted, only a small percentage of his inventions (24 documented by the museum) were ultimately patented under his name. He was probably a more prolific inventor than his patent record indicates. According to Jean Lipman’s biography Rufus Porter Rediscovered, Porter claimed to have created “upwards of one hundred new mechanical inventions” by 1848. More often than not, he sought others to buy his idea, pre-patent. This is a bit ironic considering that Porter offered services as a patent specification writer, and that Scientific American—the magazine he founded—would go on to establish the first branch of the U.S. patent agency in 1850.
I can't help but think of Porter in contemporary terms: If he were living in our time, I imagine he’d be a maker, a champion of all things open-source, and an avid blogger. As an inventor, he seemed more taken by the act of envisioning and building than the business of merchandising. He even wrote guides so that others could push his tinkering further, applying his techniques to their own projects. (Interestingly, Evgeny Morozov writes of the maker movement as ushering in a third industrial revolution in January 13, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. The first such revolution, of course, defined Porter’s time.) As an artist, he was more concerned with developing and sharing techniques that would democratize the act of mural-making and portraiture than with establishing himself as the owner of a singular style. Indeed, he is perhaps better known by his school of followers than his own signed murals.
His drive to self-publish seems to have been constant throughout his life. It resulted in everything from a music book to multi-edition practical guides to the arts and scientific experiments to periodicals like Scientific American and Scientific Mechanic, along with small-run publications and pamphlets on inventions and his thoughts on religion. I imagine that he’d take to the blogosphere like a fish to water.
To learn more about Porter, visit the Rufus Porter Museum in Maine, read Rufus Porter Rediscovered: artist, inventor, journalist 1792-1884 by Jean Lipman, or peruse his writings in Scientific American, August 28, 1845–May 29, 1847.