You know what a backyard telescope looks like. A sleek metal cylinder pointed to the heavens. An eyepiece at one end to peer into. A tripod to hold it all up.
In 1923, Vermont artist, Arctic explorer, and amateur astronomer Russell W. Porter created an Art Nouveau telescope intended to serve as both garden ornament and functional scientific instrument. Cast in bronze, the reflecting telescope was adorned with sculpted lotus petals and curving leaves. The optics were disguised in overlapping bronze leaves, while the motion controls were hidden in a pair of cylindrical flowers.
Porter created fewer than 100 of his garden telescopes, according to the Smithsonian, which holds one of the devices in its collection at the National Museum of American History. Their rarity was partly to do with cost—at around $500, the telescopes were beyond the means of most Jazz Age stargazers.
Intended to be kept in the garden year-round, the telescope was, in the words of a 15-page pamphlet written by Porter, “ever ready to entertain one’s guests—whether it be the study of the heavens, or to see what Neighbor Jones is doing to his place across the valley.”
The stem holding the optical elements could be dismantled easily. When these parts were removed, the telescope transformed into a handy sundial.
As an amateur telescope designer, however, Porter did have a lasting effect on astronomy. Five years after debuting his garden device, Porter was invited to help design the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory just north of San Diego. From its dedication in 1948 until 1993, this telescope was the world’s largest.
Porter’s original garden telescopes turn up at auctions from time to time, in varying states of preservation. But if you’d rather get a brand-new one, there is an option—as long as you’re not on a tight budget.
Since 2007, Telescopes of Vermont has been creating made-to-order versions of Porter’s telescope, using patterns made from the amateur astronomer’s original design and adding 21st-century optics. At $125,000, they’re not cheap, but Russ Schleipman, President of Telescopes of Vermont, says they’re a hit among luxury buyers. “At that level, everybody’s got the same toys,” he says. A 110-pound Art Nouveau telescope stands out.
Object of Intrigue is a weekly column in which we investigate the story behind a curious item. Is there an object you want to see covered? Email ella@