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#22 Russell W. Porter: Telescope Maker

Bicentennial Admin 200 Things about Norwich, Norwich Was There

Russell W. PorterRussell Williams Porter was enthralled by the questions that swirl in a thoughtful man’s mind when he contemplates the stars.

Porter, who attended Norwich from 1889-1890, is regarded as “the father of the amateur telescope movement.” Among his life achievements was designing the 200-inch Hale telescope at Mount Palomar, California.

A native of Springfield, Vt., Russell Porter was an architect in Maine when he made his first telescope in 1910. During World War I he worked in optics for the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C. In 1919 he returned to his hometown and was hired by the Jones and Lamson Machine Company to develop optical components for precision tools. While there, Porter taught a local group of machinists how to make telescopes. The group formed an astronomical club and the first meeting of the Springfield Telescope Makers took place in December 1923. They built a clubhouse on a 30-acre hill outside of town and called it “Stellafane,” which is Latin for shrine to the stars. In 1926 the Springfield Telescope Makers invited other groups of stargazers to their clubhouse to compare telescopes and exchange ideas. An annual event was born from this gathering and continues in Springfield, Vt., to this day.

200-inch reflecting telescope at Palomar Observatory

200-inch reflecting telescope at Palomar Observatory

The president of Jones & Lamson Machine Company, James Hartness, introduced Porter to astronomer George Ellery Hale. Hale had been commissioned by the California Institute of Technology to build the world’s largest telescope, and in 1928 he hired Russell Porter to work on the design. Porter’s grasp of telescopes and optics and his ability to convert engineering blueprints into precise, three-dimensional drawings was crucial in shaping the design of the reflecting telescope and observatory.

The 200-inch telescope on Mount Palomar took 20 years to complete and was the largest on earth from its completion in 1948 until the BTA-6 was built in Russia in 1976.

Porter died in 1949 at the age of 77. In recognition of his design of the “giant of Palomar” and other contributions to the fields of optics and astronomy, there are craters on both the Moon and Mars named in his honor.