Bridgton Museum sheds light on the life of Rufus Porter, ‘the Yankee DaVinci’


BRIDGTON – Rufus Porter was 19e-artist of the century who painted portraits and murals.

He also invented railroad signals, churns, a lifeline, a cheese press, and a drum gun. A washing machine, a fire alarm, a horse boat. A chair/cane combination with folding parts. A corn sheller. A rotary pump later used in heart and lung transplants. He designed the elevated railroad that opened in Chicago in 1888.

He designed an “air locomotive” to transport gold miners from New York to California.

He founded Scientific American magazine in 1845.

Rufus Porter is shown in this 1872 photographic print by an unidentified photographer.

Porter filed 100 or more patents with the U.S. Patent Office that burned down in 1836. To see a list of surviving patents and known inventions, go to c362e1_969e0d4fafe34ce48889d30ade604be5.pdf (

“He was a Renaissance man: an artist, an inventor, a teacher, a journalist,” said Lynn Wellbourn, a volunteer tour guide at the Rufus Porter Museum of Art and Ingenuity. “He was the original STEM guy.”

The airy museum on Main Street in Bridgton houses exhibits of sketches with descriptions of how inventions worked, a portrait room and original Scientific American prints from the 1800s.

An adjacent museum building, the former home of a local minister named Nathan Church, contains mural murals painted directly on plaster by Porter and his nephew Jonathan Poor.

Porter was ahead of his time in several ways, according to the museum’s website. He began his artistic life as a decorative painter. He then moved on to portraits and later painted the murals that would make him famous.

“He painted what he knew – landscapes of the farms around Bridgton, Maine, his childhood home, and seaport scenes from Portland, Maine, where he lived and studied in his youth.”

Porter patented inventions useful at home, on the farm, and in the factory. His rotating rifle barrel design helped revolutionize the ammunition industry.

His Scientific American magazine encouraged innovation in American arts and sciences. “This pioneering attempt at progressive journalism often included clarion calls to pave the way for a bright and promising future.

“Porter set the tone of excitement for an approaching age where thought and action have paved the way for a dark and limiting past.”

He was born in West Boxford, Massachusetts on May 1, 1792, a descendant of Puritan settlers. His family moved to Bridgton when he was a child. He received a total of six months of formal schooling at Bridgton Academy, Wellbourn said.

“He was self-taught and curious, a real entrepreneur,” she says. “Inventions were very important to him. But he was a terrible businessman.

The New England Historical Society has described Porter as “a classic Yankee of the early 19e century, coin peddlerpart traveling artist, partial inventor …he hit the road selling what people would buy at the time. The company hails Porter as “the Yankee Da Vinci”.

He “loved finding new ways of doing things. As for getting patents and making money off your ideas, well, not so much,” according to the company’s website.

He sold the rights to his rotary rifle barrel to Samuel Colt for $100. He sold his elevated railway concept for $800. He sold Scientific American 10 months after launching it in 1845, but remained editor for another 18 months. He continued to contribute columns and poetry for the rest of his life.

He only patented a fraction of his inventions.

He gave his mural painting techniques – how he mixed paints and used stencils for greater efficiency – in a book called “Curious Arts”, which is available in the museum’s gift shop.

His “flying ship” design, dreamed up in 1820 and conceived in 1849, predated the airship by many years, but it never took off, Wellbourn said.

“It was his life’s dream, but it was never built,” she said.

The design called for an 800-foot-long zeppelin-like structure that could carry up to 100 passengers. He built a 20-foot scale model, on display at the museum with detailed dimensions.

According to the New England Historical Society website, Porter had “such confidence in his invention that he asked for $50 deposits for a $200 fare from New York to California on his aerial locomotive.”

However, a tornado destroyed its first model, onlookers destroyed its second and technical issues destroyed the third, according to the company.


Porter was also an itinerant, described in a museum exhibit as an “entrepreneur who used travel and speculative risk”.

He traveled the East Coast by horse-drawn carriage from Maine to Virginia, painting portraits along the way.

“He had a painted cart to get attention,” Wellbourn said.

According to the New England Historical Society, Porter “would come to town with his nephew Jonathan D. Poor and a camera obscura mounted on a cart decorated with flags.”

The camera obscura was a box with a lens and a mirror that projected the model’s image onto a sheet of paper.

He boosted business by distributing leaflets with advertisements, like this one from 1832:

“Subscriber respectfully informs the ladies and gentlemen of Haverhill and vicinity, that he continues to paint correct likenesses in all colors for two dollars in his room at Mr. Brown’s Tavern, where he will stay two or three days more. (No likeness, no salary.)”

Sometimes he painted 20 portraits a day. He also painted silhouettes when they became very popular. He could finish one in 15 minutes and he charged 20 cents for each.

His travels included stops to paint murals. However, he did not sign them, Wellbourn said. “We can only say that a mural is done in his style or appears to be his.”

Some of her murals reflect her time in Hawaii, she said. Palm trees and volcanoes.

He used his quick stencil method to paint at least 160 walls at farmhouses and taverns across New England, according to the New England Historical Society.

“It was quite the thing to stencil your walls in 1829,” according to the company. “That year, a commentator wrote: ‘You can hardly open the door to a better room anywhere, without being startled or startled by the photo of someone glued to the wall and looking at you with both eyes and a bouquet of flowers.'”

Porter participated in the decoration of the interior of the Hancock Inn in New Hampshire. He also painted murals on the walls of the Kent House in Lyme, NH, the Birchwood Inn in Temple, NH, the Damon Tavern in North Reading, Mass., and the Mural House in Greene, Maine, to name a few, according to the company’s website.

Porter’s art “touched the lives of rural New Englanders in a really special way,” according to

“He covered their walls with peaceful, serene folk art landscapes and colorful views of rural life that spoke of patriotism, pride in America, and the bounty of this young and bountiful country.

“The lives of rural New Englanders were forever enhanced by Porter’s scenic landscape murals. The dark interiors and plain plaster walls of their homes were illuminated with the hope and promise of spring.

Porter died in 1884 at the age of 92 at the home of one of his 16 children, his son Rufus Frank Porter, in West Haven, Connecticut.

If you have a suggestion for the cover of a favorite Maine museum in central and western Maine, contact writer Karen Kreworuka at [email protected]

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