May 1, 1792 - August 13, 1884 

Artist ~ Teacher ~ Inventor ~ Publisher ~ Poet ~ New England Polymath

Rufus Porter
Rufus Porter

Rufus Porter was a traveling folk artist and inventor who decorated walls with stenciled images and original paintings throughout New England during the first half of the 1800s. His payment was often "bed and board" rather than hard cash. So it is very possible that he laid his head down in Townsend Harbor while creating the scenes on the Reed Homestead's bedroom walls. He also routinely spent the evening playing fiddle in the local tavern for a bit extra income while he painted. Perhaps he played in the Conant House?

His wall paintings were less costly for home owners than expensive imported wallpaper of the time. Unfortunately many of his murals have been lost to building decay. However in a fair turn of irony, a few were destroyed when newly affordable wallpaper was applied in later years; subsequent stripping the paper removed the mural paint underneath. The Reed Homestead murals on the second floor have escaped damage and appear unchanged from the early 1800s.

Porter also was a prolific inventor. If he had been a bit better at promoting his creations, we'd likely know him as the greatest inventor of the 19th century. That his name is unfamiliar is due to his habit of bouncing from one endeavor to the next with little focus on any given project. He also seems to have been genuinely unmotivated by money. He invented for the sake of improving life.

Porter Revolving Rifle
Porter Revolving Rifle

One of his inventions did make a good deal of money — for Samuel Colt. Porter sold the patent for the barrel on a revolving rifle for $100, which may have been a substantial sum in the early 1800s but was insubstantial compared to the money Colonel Colt made on the resulting revolver.

Rufus Porter Aerial Locomotive
Aerial Locomotive

Porter also did spend considerable time promoting one of his ideas. His contemporaries considered him bonkers for his proposal for air travel. He claimed that his Aerial Locomotive could take travelers from coast to coast in three days. Nobody took him up on it. Still he demonstrated his invention at many trade shows and fairs. And he was probably spot on. Imagine life today if his airship had taken off!


A Sampling of Rufus Porter’s Inventions

Rufus Porter Fan Blower
Fan Blower
Rufus Porter Bullet Engine
Bullet Engine

Rufus Porter Life Preserver
Life Preserver
Rufus Porter Cheese Press
Cheese Press
Rufus Porter Cord-making Machine
Cord-making Machine
Rufus Porter Churn
Rufus Porter Cane Chair
Cane Chair
Rufus Porter Fog Signal
Fog Signal
Rufus Porter Floating Dry Dock
Floating Dry Dock
Rufus Porter Steam Engine
Steam Engine

Image credits:
Porter photo from the Smithsonian Museum
Scientific American page and airship from the Rufus Porter Museum
Line drawings from US Patent Records
Colt barrel detail from Samuel Colt: Arms, Art, and Invention By Herbert G. Houze, Carolyn C. Cooper, Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser on Google Books accessed 3/6/18 at 8:00pm