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College Friend Describes Muir's Mechanical Marvels

by Harvey Reid

Source: Outlook, November 28, 1903, v. 75, pp. 763-764.

(Reprinted from The John Muir Newsletter , V.4, No.3, Summer 1994)

(John Muir Newsletter Editor's note: From the Muir family collection at the Holt- Atherton Library comes this item clipped from an unidentified issue of Outlook. The article referred to in the first paragraph was a Muir biographical sketch published in Outlook, vol. 74 (June 6, 1903), 365-77.)

To the Editor of the OUTLOOK!

The very appreciative article by Ray Stannard Baker, in your June 6 number, on the great California naturalist, John Muir, reminds me so vividly of my own short acquaintance with the unique character that I am tempted to share with your readers the reminiscence.

We were fellow students at the University of Wisconsin in the spring of 1861, and our rooms in the old North Dormitory were in neighborly proximity. Among the furnishings of his room were the two wooden clocks to which Mr. Baker alludes. The one which had been shown at the State Fair I had seen at that exhibition the previous fall. It was a mere oblong wooden rack filled with wheels at one end of which a pendulum swung, and almost the whole of it had been fashioned with no other tool than a jackknife. It would record the seconds minutes, hours, day of the week and day of the month; and it had an apparatus attached by a light cord to a delicate set of levers at the foot of his bed. The frame of the bed was hung on trunnions; and, at a desired hour the clock would release a catch and the sleeper be tilted to nearly a standing posture.

The other clock, also fashioned with no other tools than a jackknife and a hammer, was a wonderful revelation of rustic ingenuity and poetic instinct. It was wholly emblematic of old Father Time, being a combination of scythes, wheels and arrows. A rough bough of burr oak was set upon a base incrusted with moss. In one of the branches hung a miniature scythe with a regularly fashioned snathe and handles. At the place of union were attached two wooden scythes, swelling slightly from each other, but united at the points. Filling the space between the scythes from heels to points was a succession of wooden cog-wheels and small wooden dials. Depending from the scythe points was a wooden pendulum in the shape of an arrow, hanging point down. At its lower end forming the ball of the pendulum, was a cluster of six copper arrows, crossed. These had been hammered out of the large copper cents in use at that day. To the upper end of the arrow pendulum was attached two tin copper scythes (also formed out of coins) which, as the pendulum swung, would move as in mowing, the points of the scythes at each swing catching a cog in the little wheel placed there, thus setting in motion the whole machinery. In addition to the records of the larger clock, this one told also the month and the year, and could be attached to the bed alarm.

Muir told us that, at one boarding place, he had connected with the clock a device that would throw the cap off a fluid lamp, strike a match, and light the lamp at the same moment that the bed fell so that he need not rise in the dark. One day he came in and announced to my roommates and myself that he had fixed his alarm so that it would waken him on pleasant, sunshiny mornings, but would allow him to sleep if it should be rainy or cloudy. Of course we were eager to see the phenomenon, and followed him to his room for the disclosure. He had detached the little cord from he clock, and carried it through staples in the floor and up over the sill of the window, which faced the east. Where it crossed the stone still outside it was replaced by a thread, under which at a convenient spot, he had rubbed powdered charcoal. Above this he had fixed a hand magnifier, or sun class at such an angle and focus that when the sun rose it would burn the thread in two, and thus trip his bed and awaken him!. If the morning were cloudy no such event would occur, and he could finish his morning nap in peace.

Financial stringency and then war service prevented my return to the University, and I never say my young Scotch classmate after that term closed. During the years which have elapsed the query often crossed my mind, "what ever became of John Muir?" I expected to hear of him as a great inventor or mechanical expert and although the similarity in name of the Western scientist who discovered the Muir Glacier attracted my attention, I never really suspected the identity until I ran across a biographical hint in a magazine article, three years ago, which I now find absolutely confirmed in Mr. Baker's article.

Maquoketa, Iowa.

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