Kids gather around John Muir's study desk Wisconsin Historical Images
Kids gather around John Muir’s study desk
Wisconsin Historical Images

John Muir, one of America’s most influential naturalists and champions of the wilderness, celebrates his birthday this week.

Born on April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, Scotland, Muir and his family landed in Wisconsin in 1849. They settled near Portage on land they called Fountain Lake Farm. It was there in the woods, prairies, and wetlands of the farm that Muir discovered his passion for nature.

As a young man, Muir was also a talented inventor and could have made quite a career for his mechanical devices. On the farm, he constructed water wheels, thermometers, clocks and an automatic horse feeder. His father disapproved of his tinkering so he spent his nights working in secret in a cellar workshop.

Wisconsin Historical Images
Wisconsin Historical Images

Muir, whose formal schooling ended when he moved to Wisconsin, craved education. So he took several of his inventions to the 1860 Wisconsin State Fair and scraped up enough attention and money to pay for his college tuition.

Muir made the combination desk and clock pictured above while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1860s. More than just keeping time, it was a study aid for the harried college student. He arranged his books in the order he needed to study and set the timer. After a click, the first book was pushed up from a rack below the top of the desk and thrown open for studying. After a set number of minutes, the machinery closed the book, dropped it back into the rack, and then moved the next book up and onto the top of the desk.

Muir filled his dorm room with these practical machines to maximize his college experience. Another of his inventions was a combination bed and alarm clock that tipped the bed up and the person sleeping in it to standing position and struck a match for the lamp at the appointed wake up hour. It was carved, as a former dormmate of Muir’s recalled, with “no other tool than a jackknife.”

Muir left the UW and Wisconsin in 1863 on what he called “a glorious botanical and geological excursion.” He didn’t consider his education done, however: “I was only leaving one university for another, the University of Wisconsin for the University of the Wilderness.”

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