Famed Onset thermometer museum’s legacy lives on after founder passes

Feb 25, 2018

Dick Porter believed thermometers were more than just tools for displaying the temperature. They could spark an interest in science in people of all ages, he would say.

Each thermometer once housed at the museum in the basement of Porter's Onset home has a story. They came unsolicited from around the world, area flea markets, antique shops and thermometer manufacturers he would write to, asking for donations. He cataloged them, storing them in the museum, and took some on the road for lectures.

“I envy his life. He was always teaching, it never left his blood,” said Wareham's Dan Minkle, Porter’s grandson. “He was a man of many stories and he loved science.”

Porter, the founder of the “World’s Only Thermometer Museum,” died in January. He was 89. Porter passed away 11 years after most of his collection was purchased by Accuweather. The global weather forecasting service, headquartered in State College, Pennsylvania, plans to showcase the thermometers in their own museum. The rest of the collection was taken to Pennsylvania four years ago, leaving only a few of Porter’s favorite items in Onset.

Porter started the museum nearly 30 years ago after retiring as a high school science teacher in Bedford. Minkle says the museum was dedicated to his mother (Porter’s daughter) soon after she died in 1990 at the age of 37.

His collection grew to include more than 5,000 thermometers, including ones from all 50 states and 12 countries. Minkle said some of his grandfather’s favorite museum pieces were a handful of Victorian-era thermometers, rare brass instruments that hung from chandeliers.

“He claimed to have half of the remaining chandelier thermometers left in the world,” said Minkle.

The collection garnered Porter some fame. He was featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Guinness World Records named his collection the largest in the world. He traveled too, holding lectures far and wide. In 2014, he told Wareham Week that one of his favorite memories was when he was flown out to California with his grandson to a dedication ceremony for the world's largest thermometer at a restaurant in Baker. The 134-foot high thermometer goes up to 134 degrees, commemorating what is widely regarded as the highest recorded temperature on earth in nearby Death Valley on July 10, 1913.

His collection earned him TV spots on weather forecasts in Boston, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. He has been included in an episode of the History Channel's "Modern Marvels" devoted to measurement. He even had a BBC film crew come from London to his house, and has been featured in the centerfold of a magazine in Milan, Italy, where Galileo invented the thermometer in 1593.

Porter began collecting thermometers as he was finishing his career as a science teacher. Minkle speculated it started by chance. As a teacher, Porter had to properly dispose of old thermometers due to the mercury inside. Ones Porter didn’t need to throw out he held onto, Minkle said.

“He was always interested in the weather, so I think he just ran with it,” said Minkle.

Porter acquired most of the thermometers at yard sales and antique shops. He even remembered his first thermometer he got as a kid in the 1940s, which was a Mobil gasoline thermometer from his uncle's filling station in New Hampshire.

Most of all, said Minkle, his grandfather loved to share his knowledge.

“What impressed me was he was always wanting to teach people up to the day he passed away,” said Minkle.

As for the collection’s fate, a handful remain in Porter’s house where his wife Barbara still lives. The majority of the collection is at Accuweather headquarters. A spokesman for Accuweather said some of the thermometers are on display while most remain in storage as the company plans to add them to a weather museum at a later date.

Once the thermometers are featured, Minkle said he plans a visit to see his grandfather’s legacy.