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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Badger Inventor Dumped on Floor

Today is the birthday of John Muir (1838-1914), the Wisconsin-raised environmentalist whose work saved California redwoods, led to the national park system, and created the Sierra Club. We celebrate Earth Day this week in large part because Muir, with fellow Wisconsin activists Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson, inspired appreciation of the natural world in millions of urban and suburban hearts.

But before he was an environmentalist, Muir was an inventor. Working in wood with hand-tools, the youthful Muir pictured above crafted a number of ingenious devices that drew attention at the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair of 1860. The most famous of these was a combination bed/alarm clock that he would set to tip upright at an appointed hour - - simultaneously lighting a lamp - - so he could be sure to rise before dawn to study. Here is a recollection of a Madison woman who visited Muir in his dormitory at UW-Madison as a child, and was treated to a very personal demonstration of the bed. He also made a combination desk and clock that automatically retrieved a book, held it for him to study for a fixed period, and then reshelved it and opened the next. His various inventions were reviewed in this 1922 Milwaukee Sentinel article.

Pictures of Muir's inventions are included in Wisconsin Historical Images. You can also see more recollections of him, as well as original letters by him, on the conservation movement page of Turning Points in Wisconsin History.
:: Posted in Odd Lives on April 21, 2005

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