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Odd Wisconsin Archive

No Snooze Button

"I can vividly recall the tall clock which he made, and which was connected with his bed in such a way that when the time came for which he had set it, the mechanism was released which tipped up the bed and threw the occupant on the floor, and at the same time struck a match and lighted a candle, or perhaps it was an alcohol lamp, at the foot of the bed. He entertained us by putting us on the bed, and setting the clock so that in a minute or two we were thrown off."*

Today John Muir is best-remembered as the quintessential American nature lover, riding out hurricanes in tree-tops and disappearing alone for months at a time into the trackless wilderness.

But he was also a clever inventor, and as a teenager would spend many hours whittling machine parts out of wood and assembling them into intricate mechanisms to achieve specific goals. The alarm clock recalled above by Grace S. Lindsley of Madison was only one of them.

"I invented a desk," Muir later wrote, "in which the books I had to study were arranged in order at the beginning of each term. I also made a bed which set me on my feet every morning at the hour determined on, and in dark winter mornings just as the bed set me on the floor it lighted a lamp. Then, after the minutes allowed for dressing had elapsed, a click was heard and the first book to be studied was pushed up from a rack below the top of the desk, thrown open, and allowed to remain there the number of minutes required. Then the machinery closed the book and allowed it to drop back into its stall, then moved the rack forward and threw up the next in order, and so on, all the day being divided according to the times of recitation, and time required and allotted to each study.

"Besides this, I thought it would be a fine thing in the summer-time when the sun rose early, to dispense with the clock-controlled bed machinery, and make use of sunbeams instead. This I did simply by taking a lens out of my small spy-glass, fixing it on a frame on the sill of my bedroom window, and pointing it to the sunrise; the sunbeams focused on a thread burned it through, allowing the bed machinery to put me on my feet. When I wished to arise at any given time after sunrise, I had only to turn the pivoted frame that held the lens the requisite number of degrees or minutes. Thus I took Emerson's advice and hitched my dumping-wagon bed to a star."

That desk is now in the lobby of the Society headquarters building in Madison, where it has long been a favorite of visitors. Some of Muir's original plans and watercolors for other inventions are in the Society's Archives; they are also accessble online. Much more information on him is also included at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

* Lindsley, Grace. "Recollections of John Muir, 1935." Original manuscript in the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives (SC1912).

:: Posted in Curiosities on May 3, 2007

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