Pencil versus CAD

A Monday-afternoon lamentation on seeing ESO’s press release on the European Extremely Large Telescope. I noticed the above computer-generated rendering of the telescope, and I reflected back on my recent trip to Pasadena, where my coworkers and I wandered along the corridors of the Caltech astronomy department admiring the drawings of Russell W. Porter, who created remarkable illustrations of many of the telescopes at Mount Palomar.

Caltech’s archives offer mediocre reproductions of Porter’s work, but Bruce Weertman has assembled a much more impressive page of the drawings. Nothing compares to seeing the originals, however, and although I have heard tell of a book collecting his work, my (admittedly cursory) searches haven’t revealed anything definitive.

Looking at the above image, the little tiny figures on the lower half of the (oddly shiny) disk show two people and a pick-up truck to scale with the rest of the telescope. Extremely large indeed! Porter provides a similar sense of scale in virtually all of his drawings (an overview of the 200-inch telescope at Mt. Palomar, for example), and many of his illustrations also show the path light follows through the telescope in addition to mechanical deatils such as gears and supports. He packed a lot into his work.

According to an article on Kevin Hulsey’s website, “famed artist Maxfield Parrish was quoted as saying the following about Porter’s drawings: ‘If these drawings had been made from the telescope and its machinery after it had been erected they would have been of exceptional excellence, giving an uncanny sense of reality, with shadows accurately cast and well nigh perfect perspective; but to think that any artist had his pictorial imagination in such working order as to construct these pictures with no other mechanical data than blue prints of plans and elevation of the various intricate forms is simply beyond belief.’ ”

Long before CAD programs made the job easy (or at least easier), Porter sketched out spectacular visualizations of these phenomenal mid-century achievements. I wonder what we lose by working in an almost exclusively computer-generated realm nowadays. I’m not suggesting going back (necessarily), but… Just wondering.