Irving Porter Church

Professor of Applied Mechanics and Hydraulics, Cornell University

Irving Porter Church played a significant role in the genesis of the telescope bearing his name at Fuertes Observatory. Through connections at the University of Chicago he became aware of a pair of unused 12" lens blanks there, and raised funds, to which he contributed $1000 of his own money, towards their optical fabrication by the Brashear company and their mounting in a Warner and Swasey equatorial mounting and tube.

Unfortunately, as an engineer rather than an astronomer, he seems to have missed the impact of the 60" Hooker reflector, the first large mirror-based modern telescope, dedicated in 1908, which sounded the death knell for large refractors. It was probably this that had caused The University of Chicago to shelve the further development of its blanks and to happily part with them for an otherwise unrecoverable fee.

He was also a noted writer of engineering textbooks, some of which remain in print. These include:

  • Hydraulic Motors: With Related Subjects, Including Centrifugal Pumps, Pipes, and Open Channels, Designed As a Text-Book for Engineering Schools
  • Statics and Dynamics for Engineering Students
  • Mechanics of Engineering: A Treatise on Hydraulics and Pneumatics for Use in Technical Schools
  • Mechanics of engineering. Comprising statics and dynamics of solids; the mechanics of the materials
  • Mechanics of Internal Work: (Or Work of Deformation) in Elastic Bodies and Systems in Equilibrium, Including the Method of Least Work

In 1964, monies were obtained to endow an Irving Porter Church professorship in engineering -- this prestigious post is currently held by Joseph A. Burns, professor of engineering and astronomy.


Born 22 July 1851, Ansonia, New Haven, Connecticut
Died 8 May 1931

Son of Samuel Church & Elizabeth Hannah Sterling Church
husband of Elizabeth Porter Holley Church
father of Edith Holley Church and Elsie Sterling Church

From Faculty Records, pp. 760, 1699. Resolutions of the Trustees and Faculty of Cornell University; September, 1931

In the death of Professor Irving Porter Church, Cornell University has lost one of her most distinguished graduates and most valued teachers. His whole career was spent in the service of his Alma Mater.

Graduated in 1873, a member of the instructing staff since 1876, he gave to Cornell the benefit of his exceptional training as a mathematician and of his rare qualities as a teacher. When he retired in 1916 he had taught here forty years, first as assistant and associate professor of Civil Engineering and later as professor of Applied Mechanics and Hydraulics.

He enriched the literature of his profession by works of lasting merit in which his keen analytical mind, his matchless gifts of exposition are strikingly illustrated. His pupils have attained eminence in every field of engineering.

Another high honor came to him in 1929 [erroneously quoted as 1919 in the original obituary] when he was awarded the Benjamin G. Lamme gold medal "for accomplishment in technical teaching and actual advancement of the art of technical training." This medal, given by the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, was a tribute of the whole profession to the man who had been called "the father of mechanics" on account of his epoch-making book The Mechanics of Engineering.

The essential doctrine of this book as well as of his teachings was that all good design must be based on the principle of mechanics.

His students were unanimous in praising his qualities as a teacher; clarity of presentation, rigor of demonstration, unlimited patience, unfailing courtesy were out-standing characteristics. They remember with especial gratitude that he spared neither his time nor his labor in helping them individually to understand difficult question and to solve what seemed to them insoluble problems.

Their respect for the teacher was equaled only by their admiration and affection for the man whose quiet manner and self-effacing modesty won the hearts of all who knew him.

Science was only one aspect of his versatile personality. Nothing in the realm of literature and art was indifferent to him. He read good books. He displayed a peculiar and persistent interest in modern languages. Although he made only one short trip abroad he spoke well and understood both French and German. He loved and practiced the arts. Painting was one of his favorite diversions of his later years, and his home was filled with his copies of great masterpieces.

He was very fond of music. He played the violin. Until the very last he found solace in listening to melodies that had always enchanted him.

This unassuming and retiring man whose life was so full of work and who seemed absorbed in his many avocations found time to interest himself in the activities of the city. No good cause, no work of community interest or of social service appealed to him in vain. He gave generously and cheerfully. His acts of kindness to humble folk, his interest in deserving students, his love of children are remembered by all who knew him.

His last illness kept him confined to his home for two years, without depriving him of the companionship of his family and his friends. Those who called on him found him always resigned, serene, and smiling. To the end he was deeply interested in everything that concerned the University. He ever remained the gentle, friendly, and human soul that his colleagues and pupils will ever mourn and remember.

Buried: Ithaca City Cemetery, plot k-205-1

Fuertes Observatory
This site is powered by FoswikiCopyright & 2005-2018 by the contributing authors.
Send feedback