Collectibles: Star Searcher

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

A group of New Englanders has built a better telescope, better than the bronze Art Nouveau–style instrument that Russell Porter created in the 1920s, and which served as the model for the new Porter Garden Telescope. The group, which is incorporated as Telescopes of Vermont, altered Porter’s design by replacing the prism in the eyepiece with a mirror. This change produces sharper images of the objects that are viewed. The replica also looks better than the original because the foundry was more adept at executing Porter’s plans for the device’s decorative elements. “If Porter had had the time, the money, and the people, he would have made these changes,” says Dave Nugent, the New Hampshire artisan who created the patterns for casting the metal components of the replica. “We’re confident that if he could see what we did, he’d say, ‘Yes, that’s the way I want it to be.’ ”

Porter, who died in 1949 at age 78, was an artist, an Arctic explorer, and a designer of the 200-inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California. In 1923, he founded the Springfield Telescope Makers, an amateur astronomy club that still thrives in his hometown of Springfield, Vt. Around the same time, Springfield’s Jones & Lamson Machine Co. began shipping Porter’s garden telescope to customers. The 35-inch-tall bronze device illustrates Porter’s unusual talent for uniting science and art. Designed to be placed in a garden or on the grounds of an estate, it functions as a telescope and as a decorative sculpture. (Its delicate optics, which should not be left outside, can be removed and placed in a wooden storage box; the replica includes this detail.) Bertram Willard, author of a Porter biography and the engineer who designed the optics for the replica, says that Porter had hoped the telescope would prove popular. “His original intent was to get it in as many hands as he could,” Willard says, “but it turned out to be too expensive.” Its $250 original price rose to $400 before Jones & Lamson discontinued the item in 1925; that same year, a new Model T sold for $300. (The replica is far more expensive than the original, costing $59,000.) Jones & Lamson made fewer than 100 Porter telescopes, and fewer than 15 survive; one is in the Smithsonian, and another belongs to the Springfield Telescope Makers’ museum.

Fred Schleipman, an 86-year-old retired machinist from Norwich, Vt., who used to create custom scientific tools for Dartmouth’s professors, first saw a Porter telescope at the Springfield museum more than three decades ago and was smitten immediately. “I admired the beauty and the practicality of it,” he says. “I decided I wanted to have one, and the only way was to make one.” The Springfield group had declined previous requests from petitioners who wanted to borrow its telescope to copy it, but in 2005 the group made an exception for Schleipman. Willard, a friend of his as well as a club member, says, “The club believed in him. If anyone could pull it off, he’s the one to do it.”
 
The Franklin, N.H., foundry that Schleipman hired to cast the bronze parts recommended Nugent for the pattern-making task. The club allowed Schleipman to borrow the instrument for three weeks, during which Nugent photographed, measured, and took wax impressions for later reference. Nugent thought he would finish the pattern-making in six months, but ultimately he needed 14. “I had to reverse-engineer the whole thing,” he says. “It’s necessary on something old like that.” Whenever Nugent identified a detail of Porter’s original design that he felt he could or should improve, he would discuss the matter with Schleipman, Willard, and a few others who advised on the project. “We had intense debates almost every inch of the way,” Nugent says. “Occasionally, it got almost heated. But we’re very proud of what we put out in the end. We did our homework on it, and we did it right. If people find fault with it, they’ll have to talk to Russell Porter.”

Telescopes of Vermont, 617.292.5155, www.gardentelescopes.com

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