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.

There Could Be Hundreds of Frozen Corpses Buried Beneath Antarctica's Snow and Ice

Prpix.com.au/Getty Images
Prpix.com.au/Getty Images

Scientists and explorers take a number of risks when they travel to Antarctica. One of the more macabre gambles is that they'll perish during their mission, and their bodies will never be recovered. According to the BBC, hundreds of frozen corpses may be trapped beneath layers and layers of Antarctic snow and ice.

“Some are discovered decades or more than a century later,” Martha Henriques writes for the BBC series Frozen Continent. “But many that were lost will never be found, buried so deep in ice sheets or crevasses that they will never emerge—or they are headed out towards the sea within creeping glaciers and calving ice.”

In the world’s most extreme regions, this is not uncommon. For comparison, some estimates suggest that more than 200 bodies remain on Mt. Everest. Antarctica's icy terrain is rugged and dangerous. Massive crevasses—some concealed by snow—measure hundreds of feet deep and pose a particularly serious threat for anyone crossing them on foot or by dogsled. There’s also the extreme weather: Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth, yet scientists recently discovered hundreds of mummified penguins that they believe died centuries ago from unusually heavy snow and rain.

One of the most famous cases of a left-behind body on Antarctica dates back to the British Antarctic Expedition (also known as the Terra Nova Expedition) of 1910 to 1913. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his four-man team hoped to be the first ones to reach the South Pole in 1912, but were bitterly disappointed when they arrived and learned that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it.

On the return trip, Scott and his companions died of exposure and starvation while trapped by a blizzard in their tent, just 11 miles from a food depot. Two of those bodies were never found, but the others (including Scott’s) were located a few months after their deaths. Members of the search party covered their bodies in the tent with snow and left them there. The bodies have since travelled miles from their original location, as the ice grows and shifts around them.

Other evidence suggests people landed on Antarctica decades before Scott’s team did. A 175-year-old human skull and femur found on Antarctica’s Livingston Island were identified as the remains of a young indigenous Chilean woman. No one yet knows how she got there.

Accidents still happen: After coming close to completing the first solo, unaided traverse of Antarctica, British adventurer Henry Worsley died of organ failure following an airlift from the continent in 2016. Most modern-day polar visitors, however, have learned from past missteps.

[h/t BBC]

Dolly Parton, They Might Be Giants, and More Featured on New Album Inspired By the 27 Amendments

Valerie Macon, Getty Images
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

Since 2016, Radiolab's More Perfect podcast has taken what is typically viewed as a dry subject, the Supreme Court, and turned it into an engrossing podcast. Now, fans of the show have a whole new way to learn about the parts of U.S. history which textbooks tend to gloss over. 27, The Most Perfect Album, a new music compilation from Radiolab, features more than two dozen songs inspired by each of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, from freedom of religion to rules regulating changes to Congressional salaries.

More Perfect assembled an impressive roster of musical talents to compose and perform the tracklist. They Might Be Giants wrote the song for the Third Amendment, which prohibited the forced quartering of soldiers in people's homes. It goes, "But the presence of so many friendly strangers makes me nervous, and it does not mean that I'm not truly thankful for your service."

For the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Dolly Parton sings, "We carried signs, we cursed the times, marched up and down the street. We had to fight for women's rights with blisters on our feet." Less sexy amendments, like the 12th Amendment, which revised presidential election procedures, and the 20th Amendment, which set commencement terms for congress and the president, are also featured. Torres, Caroline Shaw, Kash Doll, and Cherry Glazerr are just a handful of the other artists who contributed to the album.

The release of the compilation coincides with the premiere of More Perfect's third season, which will focus on the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You can check out the first episode of the new season today and download the companion album for free through WNYC.

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