Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mystery Man

Later this month will be the 60th anniversary of the death of Russell W. Porter.

Here is Russell W. Porter (at right) during a visit to the construction site of the 200-inch telescope back in November, 1936.

Porter was a Renaissance man of immense talents. At Palomar he aided the design of the 200-inch telescope and its dome. He is perhaps best remembered for his detailed cut-away drawings of the telescope and its many parts. Most of these were done from blue prints long before the actual telescope was constructed.

One of his drawings shows a person in the prime focus cage, much like the photo of Edwin Hubble posted last week. Porter’s illustration was done nine years before Hubble’s first light trip.

Who it was the Porter rendered in the drawing above has long been a mystery to me. The coat and tie is very Hubbelesque, but the likeness certainly isn't Edwin Hubble.

Porter had a history of putting relevant people into his drawings, so it was likely someone connected with the project in some way. He put Bernard Schmidt into his drawing of the 48-inch telescope at Palomar. Schmidt invented the type of telescope (also called a Schmidt Camera) that bears his name, but he never visited Palomar.

So who is sitting at prime focus in Porter's illustration? Last fall a clue came in the mail. A wonderful bundle of photos and documents that used to belong to James "Jimmie" Fassero, author of Photographic Giants of Palomar. In it is a letter written by Porter where he is discussing observing at prime focus and the drawing above.

"The 'poor devil' you refer to at the prime focus is Burton, who designed the p.f. [prime focus] pedestal It's a pretty good likeness of him. I got him to pose for me."

Porter's letter reveals that the mystery man is Burton and that Burton designed the prime focus pedestal. I still do not have a first name, but checking the blue prints reveals that drawings of many of the parts there were approved by "WDB". Perhaps Burton himself.

If anyone knows Burton's full name or any other information about him, please send it my way.

Finally we recently had another discovery about Burton and Porter. Some of our docents were looking at some old photos on lantern slides when they found a photo of Burton posing as Porter described and drew above.

Here is Porter's drawing and Burton. Side by side.

As always, click to enlarge. The likeness is great ("pretty good" in Porter's words), but I think that Porter may have given him a bit more hair than the photo shows.


Scott Kardel said...

Yikes! I mistakenly typed 70th anniversary when I meant 60th. It is fixed in the post now. Porter died in 1949, not 1939.

paul said...

Thanks for the wonderful blog and the reminder of the anniversary or RWP's death. I'm happy to be able to think of the man on such a significant date. Mr. Porter was a hero of mine growing up in Albany, NY and about 1.5 hours from Springfield, VT. My mom and I went to Stellafane about 7 years in a row (thanks Mom). He really encapsulated all the things I loved growing up, inventor, explorer, artist, etc. In fact, my son is named after him!
Keep up the good work!