Conservationist John Muir’s Youthful Hobby: Inventing Amazing Alarm Clocks

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you think of John Muir, you might envision a bearded naturalist on a hike or standing in front of a magnificent natural vista. But Muir was more than a great explorer and advocate of national parks—he was also an ingenious inventor.

As a young boy in Scotland and later Wisconsin, Muir developed an obsession with clocks. There was just one problem: His authoritarian father, Daniel, filled every waking hour with chores and religious education. By the time he was 11 years old, John could recite three-quarters of the Old Testament and the entire New Testament “by sore flesh,” as he wrote in his memoir, a reference to the brutal beatings his father inflicted on him if he failed to fulfill his duties.

Daniel Muir had little patience for his son’s budding interest in engineering. So John came up with a solution: wake up earlier than the rest of the family and try out ideas he had come up with while plowing during the day. He began to get up at 1 a.m. to read.

“Five hours, almost half a day!” he later wrote. “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.” Soon he was doing more than reading: In the wee hours of the morning, he made a labor-saving sawmill.

His creativity stoked by his first success, Muir decided to figure out a way to make the most of his precious morning hours. The “early-rising machine,” as he called it, was not just a way to work on his engineering skills, it was a way to make sure he got out of bed. In his memoir of his boyhood, Muir describes the invention as “a timekeeper which would tell the day of the week and the day of the month, as well as strike like a common clock and point out the hours; also … have an attachment whereby it could be connected with a bedstead to set me on my feet at any hour in the morning; also to start fires, light lamps, etc.”

Muir faced several obstacles in creating his ambitious invention, however: Not only were his days crammed full of work, but he lacked both the raw materials and his father’s permission to spend time whittling instead of working. For months, Muir hoarded small scraps of wood, carving them in every spare moment, and hid his invention in a spare bedroom upstairs.

When his father finally discovered the machine, Muir thought he would burn it. But after delivering a lecture about the wickedness of spending spare time on “useless, nonsensical things,” he did nothing—and Muir finished it in full view. Despite his naysaying, Muir’s father even seems to have tried it out. “This he did repeatedly,” wrote Muir, “and evidently seemed a little proud of my ability to invent and whittle such a thing, though careful to give no encouragement for anything more of the kind in the future.”

Not that Muir needed much encouragement. Once his early-rising machine was finished, he made even more wooden clocks, including one shaped like a scythe that included the uplifting message “all flesh is grass.” Another clock was so large it could be read by the neighbors. (Muir’s father put a stop to that, fearing that it would draw too many onlookers.)

Once Muir got to college, he kept on inventing clocks. His dorm room at the University of Wisconsin, Madison doubled as a workshop, and he invented another alarm clock designed to help him excel in school. This desk alarm clock was perhaps his greatest mechanical triumph: Not only did it wake him up in the morning, it lit a lamp to illuminate the room, and after giving him a few minutes to dress, served up the first in a stack of study books—even opening the book up for Muir to read. A clicking device held the book in place for a specified amount of time, before closing it, sweeping it away, and putting the next book in its place. Muir even modified the machine to respond to the morning sun during the summer, using a glass lens on his windowsill to burn through a thread that would snap and trigger the clock’s mechanism.

A photo of John Muir's clockwork study desk.
John Muir's clockwork study desk.

But Muir’s most impressive invention didn’t involve wheels, cogs, or mechanics. Though he gained a reputation for his engineering, a machine accident that left him partially blind in 1867 pushed him more and more to his other love, the outdoors. In 1889, Muir drew a map that would change the world—a map of the boundaries of land in Yosemite, which he thought should be preserved by the federal government.

This led not just to the creation of Yosemite National Park, but to the Sierra Club—an organization Muir co-founded on May 28, 1892—which has advocated for the conservation of America’s natural glory for 125 years. Today, the inventor-turned-naturalist is considered one of the grandfathers of American preservation, but it all started with a curiosity honed during stolen hours, helped along by some very clever clocks.

A Nellie Bly Memorial Is Being Planned for New York City’s Roosevelt Island

The infamous asylum on Blackwell's Island that Nellie Bly infiltrated in the late 1880s.
The infamous asylum on Blackwell's Island that Nellie Bly infiltrated in the late 1880s.
New York Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nellie Bly, the 19th-century journalist renowned for her six-part exposé on Blackwell’s Island’s asylum in New York City—which she infiltrated by feigning insanity—will soon be honored with a memorial on the island itself, now called Roosevelt Island.

Her 1887 investigation, Smithsonian.com reports, uncovered cruel conditions for the female "lunatic" patients, like freezing baths, violence, and solitary confinement in rooms overrun with vermin. Its publication resulted in a series of improvements including increased funding, translator assistance for immigrants, termination of abusive staff, and more. It also facilitated a national discussion about the stigma of mental illness, especially for women.

All we know about the monument so far is that it’ll be some kind of statue—maybe a traditional sculpture, something more modern or even digital—and construction will take place between March and May of next year with a budget of about $500,000. The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) announced an open call for artists to submit their designs, and by August 2, it will choose five finalists who will then create conceptual proposals for the memorial.

The monument’s precise location is still up in the air, too. It could be around the Octagon, the only remaining portion of the asylum building that now forms the entrance to a luxury apartment complex on the northern half of the island, or in Lighthouse Park, a 3.78-acre space at the island’s northern tip.

Portrait of Nellie Bly
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Until the mid-20th century, Roosevelt Island, located in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, was a rather undesirable place to visit. Along with the women’s asylum, it housed a prison, a charity hospital, a smallpox hospital, and a workhouse, The New York Times reports.

The city changed the name of the island (originally called Blackwell’s after the family who farmed there for generations) to Welfare Island in 1921. In 1935, it relocated the prison to Rikers Island (where it remains today). And in 1971, the city established a middle-income residential community on the island, renaming it Roosevelt Island, after Franklin Roosevelt.

Though Bly’s work in the island’s asylum may be her most famous, it was far from her only contribution to the worlds of journalism and industry. She also sailed around the world in 72 days, investigated baby trafficking, and ran her late husband’s manufacturing company. You can read more about her here.

“She’s one of our local heroes,” RIOC president Susan Rosenthal told The City about the choice to honor Bly. “The combination of who she was, the importance of investigative journalism and the fact that it happened here just made it perfect for the island.”

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

10 Fascinating Facts About Anne Boleyn

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anne Boleyn was one of England’s most controversial queens. In 1533, King Henry VIII annulled his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) and was in the process of breaking with the Catholic Church to wed the charming noblewoman. But their happiness was not to last: Just three years later, Anne was executed. It’s a compelling story, one that’s been dramatized in plays, novels, movies, and TV shows. But today, we’re setting the pop culture depictions aside to take a look at the real Anne Boleyn.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s formative years were spent in France and Belgium.

Born in the early 16th century (possibly in 1501 or 1507), Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, an English diplomat. As a child, she went abroad to study in Margaret of Austria’s court, located in present-day Belgium, and later continued her education as a member of Mary Tudor’s elegant household in Paris. By the time she returned to her native England in the early 1520s, Boleyn had mastered the French language—and she carried herself like a Parisian, too. “No one,” wrote one of Boleyn’s contemporaries, “would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but [instead] a native-born Frenchwoman."

  1. Anne Boleyn played the lute.

Even Boleyn’s harshest critics had to admit that she was a good dancer. She was also fond of music, and reportedly played the lute (a guitar-like instrument popular at Tudor gatherings) quite well. A songbook that bears her inscription can be found at London’s Royal College of Music. It’s unclear if Boleyn ever owned this book, but its selection of tunes is historically significant.

  1. Anne Boleyn almost married someone other than King Henry VIII.

In 1522, Thomas Boleyn and his cousin, Sir Piers Butler, were both trying to claim some Irish land holdings that had belonged to one of their mutual ancestors. To settle the dispute, Anne's uncle suggested marrying Anne to Butler’s son, James, so that the factions could be unified in the future. By the time Anne returned to England, the marriage was already in the works. King Henry VIII—whose mistress at that time was Anne's sister Mary—supported the match, but the marriage never went through. Anne also had a romantic relationship with one Henry Percy, a future Earl of Northumberland who wound up marrying the Lady Mary Talbot.

  1. Anne Boleyn was pregnant at her coronation.

King Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was annulled on May 23, 1533. He’d been courting Anne Boleyn for years; many of his love letters survive to this day. As the king’s infatuation grew, so did his desire for a healthy male heir—which Catherine never gave him. But Pope Clement VII refused to dissolve the royal marriage. So the Archbishop of Canterbury went ahead and annulled it. Henry VIII would soon be declared “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” severing its ties with the Vatican. Boleyn was crowned queen on June 1, 1533. Her first child, Princess Elizabeth, was born a little over three months later.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s emblem was a white falcon.

The Boleyns took a white falcon from the traditional Butler family crest. For Anne’s coronation ceremony, poet Nicholas Udall wrote a ballad that likened the new queen to this elegant bird of prey. “Behold and see the Falcon White!” declared one verse. “How she beginneth her wings to spread, and for our comfort to take her flight” [PDF]. The new queen also used a white falcon badge as her personal emblem; at some point, a graffitied version of this was carved into the Tower of London.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s religious views are hard to pin down, but she appeared to sympathize with reformers.

At a time when Latin-language Bibles were the norm in Catholic Europe, Boleyn consistently supported the publication of English translations—a controversial notion at the time. As queen, she and her husband arranged for the release of Nicholas Bourbon, a French humanist whose criticisms of saint-worship and other theological matters had landed him in jail. Bourbon went to England, where he tutored Boleyn’s nephew (at her request).

  1. Anne Boleyn was the first of Henry VIII’s queens to get beheaded.

Like Catherine before her, Anne Boleyn failed to deliver Henry VIII’s long-sought male heir. In 1536, she found herself on trial, accused of high treason, adultery, and incest. (Rumors circulated that she was having an affair with her brother, George.) Though many historians dismiss these allegations, they sealed her fate nevertheless. Boleyn was beheaded on May 19, 1536. Henry VIII wed his third wife, Jane Seymour, that same month. Two spouses later, history repeated itself when the king had queen number five—Catherine Howard—decapitated in 1542.

  1. It has been claimed that Anne Boleyn had 11 fingers.

When you replace a popular monarch and spur the change of the religious fabric of an entire country, you're bound to make enemies. One of Boleyn’s detractors claimed that she had a “devilish spirit,” while another famously called her a “goggle-eyed whore.”

And then there’s Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, who wrote an unflattering description of the former queen many years after she died. According to him, Boleyn had “a large wen [wart or cyst] under her chin,” a “projecting tooth under the upper lip” and “six fingers” on her right hand. But his claims are highly suspect. There’s no proof that Sander ever laid eye on Boleyn—plus, her contemporaries didn’t mention any of these physical traits in their own writings about the queen. At worst, she might have had a second nail on one finger—which is a far cry from saying she possessed an extra digit.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, ruled England for decades.

Coronated at age 25 on January 15, 1559, Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada, promoted exploration, and foiled multiple assassination plots during her 44-year reign. She held the throne right up until her death in 1603.

  1. There’s only one surviving portrait of Anne Boleyn (that we know of).

When Henry VIII executed her, most Anne Boleyn likenesses were intentionally destroyed—and now, there's just one contemporary image of the queen known to exist: a lead disc—crafted in 1534—with Boleyn’s face etched on one side, which is held at the British Museum in London. It’s the only verified portrait of the former queen that was actually produced during her lifetime.

But there may be at least one more image of the queen out there: In 2015, facial recognition software was used to compare the image on the disc to a 16th-century painting currently housed at the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums. The picture’s subject, a young woman, has never been identified, but according to the program, the figure looks an awful lot like Boleyn’s portrait in that lead disc—though the researchers cautioned that their results were inconclusive due to insufficient data.

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