John Muir Day
John Muir is a name most people would associate with expertise in subjects ranging from conservation, geology, botany and glaciation and while he is rightly famous for his extensive work in these fields, few people are aware about his work at a young age as a brilliant inventor, something that without an accident that nearly cost him his eyesight at the age of 29, might have become a full time career.
John Muir was born in Dunbar, however, at the age of 11 his family moved to the United States of America to a farm in Wisconsin. This brought an end to John’s formal school education as he was expected to work on the farm 7 days a week, carrying our laborious tasks that would have challenged a full grown adult let alone a young teenager. John always had an interest in learning and education and had an incredible memory; however, his biggest barrier to furthering his learning was his father Daniel Muir. He held very strict religious views, even for the time, and did not believe receiving a formal education was necessary. He often said that ‘the bible is the only book a human being can possibly require throughout the journey from earth to heaven’.
In spite of this at the age of 15 John persuaded his father to buy him a book on higher arithmetic. He began reading by candlelight in the evenings, however, his father believed if he stayed up late he would not rise in the morning, so announced “if you will read get up in the morning and read! You may get up in the morning as early as you like”. The next morning John awoke at 1am and went down to the freezing cellar to continue his learning. This extra time he had gained to himself early in the morning changed his life and he wrote of it “Five huge, solid hours! I can hardly think of any other event in my life, any discovery I ever made that gave birth to joy so transportingly glorious as the possession of these five frosty hours”.
John’s first invention was a self setting saw mill. This he built in his cellar in the early morning hours his father had permitted him to use for his research and reading. His father had brought over some tools from Scotland ‘a vice, files, a hammer, chisels’ but he made any tools that were not available to him. He completed his self setting saw mill in a very short time and quickly set it to work in the stream running through the farm. He then went on to complete a series of other inventions including water-wheels, thermometers, hygrometers, clocks, a barometer and an automatic device for feeding the horses at any required hour. One of John’s favourite inventions was his ‘early-rising- machine’, this was an alarm clock that would tip up his bed and dump him on the floor, which he then set to use to ensure he awoke in the early hours . He also invented a clock in the shape of a scythe (pictured below). The wheels were arranged along the part representing a blade, the clock told the month and the year as well as the time and it could be attached to his bed alarm. In his book The Story of my boyhood and Youth John describes his scythe clock: “…I made another hickory clock, shaped like a scythe to symbolize the scythe of Father Time. The pendulum is a bunch of arrows symbolizing the flight of time. It hangs on a leafless mossy oak snag showing the effect of time, and on the scythe is written, “All flesh is grass”.”
After admiring some of John’s inventions his close neighbour told him if he were to take them to a state fair he would quickly get a job in a mechanical factory. At 22 John left the farm and travelled to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society Fair where he was very well received. He was described in the local paper as ‘An Ingenious Whittler” and punters were amazed that his clocks could not only register hours but minutes, seconds and days of the month. He won a prize at the fair of 10 or 15 dollars and a diploma. Thanks to his impressive inventions and skills with
mechanics John quickly got a job working in a small shop and on the side would sell clocks to people in the hope of finding a way to save enough money to attend the State University. By chance he met with a student from the university who told him that very little money was actually required to attend, and if he lived off primarily just bread and milk he would be able to do attend for only one dollar a week.
John had enough money aside for one term so interviewed with the Dean where he explained that he had not been in formal education since leaving Scotland at only 11 as he had to work on the farm. Despite this he was still welcomed into Wisconsin University. He stayed at there for four years working in the field harvests during the summer break. He often had to work shifts during the day and study at night just to get by. But all the while he continued inventing and his room was littered with different clocks, barometers and other novel scientific apparatus. John described his room as being regarded as ‘some sort of show place by the professors who would oftentimes brought visitors to it on Saturday and the holidays’. In his time at Wisconsin University John did not follow a regular course of studies and just picked out the courses that were of most interest to him including chemistry, mathematics, physics, Greek, Latin, botany and geology.
After his studies in 1864 John travelled to Canada to avoid draft during the U.S civil war, here he did a lot of hiking and collecting and identifying plants. He worked at a sawmill before returning to the United States in 1866. Back in the USA he worked at a wagon wheel factory, where again because of his inventiveness and adeptness with machinery he rose to supervisor earning approximately $25 per week (a significant amount more than the half a dollar per week he was often living on at university). In 1867 his life changed when a tool he was using slipped and struck him in the eye and he was unsure if he would ever regain his sight. John was confined to a dark room and once he emerged he had a new lease ofhad life, wanting to make the most of everything nature had to offer. John wanted to “store my mind with the Lords beauty, and thus be ready for any fate light or dark… I bade adieu to all my mechanical inventions determined to devote the rest of my life to study all of the inventions of god”.
To learn more about John Muir there is a range of books both written both by him and about him:
- Muir, John. The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. Wisconsin; The University of Wisconsin Press.
- Wolfe, Linnie Marsh. Son of the Wilderness. Wisconsin; The University of Wisconsin Press, 1945.
- Muir, John. John Muir, The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books. Baton Wicks Publications; 1996 (Collection).
- Turner, Frederick. John Muir, From Scotland to the Sierra. Edinburgh; Canongate Books Ltd, 1997.
- Stanley, Millie. The Heart of John Muir’s World, Wisconsin, Family, & Wilderness Discovery. Madison, Wisconsin; Prairie Oak Press, 1995.