Scientific American/Rufus Porter

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Scientific American, November 08, 1884

One of our English contemporaries, Invention, in referring to the life and genius of the late Rufus Porter, pays a compliment to the energy, ingenuity, and versatility of the American in contrast with the Englishman, whose idea, the editor thinks, is generally confined to fitting himself for a single pursuit in life. That the true genius of the American people is inventive and mechanical is a self evident proposition," says the writer, "and it would appear as though invention, relatively speaking, has flourished more in the United States than in all the rest of the world, making due allowance for time. Born in the presidency of the illustrious Washington, Rufus Porter lived through the reigns of twenty-one American Presidents, and was himself a living representative of the genius of American invention for over three-quarters of a century. From the first he was the true type of the smart American boy, who, so far from being impressed by the Carlylean idea of the great dignity of personal work in its manual forms, was nothing unless a labor saving machine in its most comprehensive shape. Thus Rufus Porter began his long career of usefulness as an inventor of turbine water wheels, windmills, flying ships, rotary engines, and sundry contrivances for abolishing as far as possible agricultural labor. He was as a youth, too, an ardent patriot, and in truth half a dozen other things, each of which if followed up fully might have sufficed to secure to most men a reasonable amount of distinction and prosperity. He fought against the British, and this occupation -- a mere interlude in a life crowded with incidents, and usually at the white heat of some newly found enterprise -- naturally led to the elaboration of war engines; and his well known revolving rifle enabled Colonel Colt to reproduce the revolving pistol, which initiated a host of small firearms on the same principle. For Rufus Porter, however, there was neither rest nor supreme success in any decade of his singularly active and abnormally busy career. He was a schoolmaster, a portrait painter by turns, and he founded the Scientific American, the greatest and best of all American mechanical papers, and one that indeed is unsurpassed in its new lines by any journal extant. Clocks, railway signals, churns, washing machines, and other appliances were among the many fruits of his active brain, and it was doubtless to this fecundity that his comparative failure in a worldly sense was due. His inventions were in a manner cast aside as soon as he had roughly completed them, and, heedless of the commercial phases of invention, this wonderfully prolific genius passed on to make a fresh essay in the great work of saving human manual labor -- which is the real end of all truly American progress, and the main object of American civilization. To give a detailed account of all that Rufus Porter accomplished or attempted in the great field of invention would altogether transcend the limits of our space; but although a contemporary, writing of this great and original inventor, has remarked, that in spite of all he did and wrote, and the very extraordinary length of time accorded to him, he has gone to the grave leaving a name "writ in water," we still think that in the world of invention his name will be fully blazoned as a material benefactor to his fellow men. No doubt, this career, so rich in actual matter of fact result, illustrates fully the different conditions of life in England and America, in regard to the encouragement given to inventors in the respective countries. Here the whole course of education, and the entire bias of prejudice, is toward each man equipping himself for a single well defined pursuit. In no country in the world is the saying more relished than that of a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none, whereas in the United States it is precisely the reverse. There, in a still new country, handiness and ready adaptability is everything, and every possible encouragement is fully given to that versatility which has so little, comparatively speaking, in this country with its well defined and strictly preserved paths of infinitely subdivided industries. Probably in both countries, "the falsehood of extremes" is sufficiently illustrated, and each would gain by a process of mutual adoption and adaptation of native peculiarities. There can be no doubt but that in America, invention has been more versatile and, to borrow a now familiar phrase, more "differentiated" than among ourselves, while here it has achieved in certain lines greater results, perhaps due only to the concentrativeness of the English mind. We believe for our own part that it is wholesome for Americans to study English, and for Englishmen to study American inventors. The mutual lesson is sure to be mutually profitable. Meanwhile we may add in conclusion that although he has not in any sense attained the fame and eminence of Morse, a Howe, or Edison, Rufus Porter will live as one of the best and brightest examples of the versatility of American invention.