After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

John Muir’s Early-Rising Genius

Posted on April 1, 2012
Filed Under Technology | Leave a Comment

We don’t have the space to review the Make blog’s post on “John Muir’s Maker Days” as extensively as it deserves. We’ll simply note that Muir’s youth revealed the ravenous appetite for discovery and application that underlies  a lot of technological gains. (We hope it’s not stretching a point to align Muir with technology, but it seems appropriate in the following context.)

Growing up in Wisconsin, the great naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club (and our National Park System) would get up at 1 a.m., hold a candle to the kitchen clock and find that he had gained five hours. “‘I had gained almost half a day. ‘Five hours to myself!’,’ I said, ‘five huge, solid hours!’ 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.'”

Working in his frigid basement, Make continues, Muir used his extra time to design a self-setting sawmill (to provide extra wood to heat the house on zero-degree mornings), “speedily followed by a lot of others – water wheels, curious doorlocks and latches, thermometers, hygrometers, pyrometers, clocks, a barometer, an automatic contrivance for feeding the horses at any required hour, a lamp-lighter and fire-lighter, an early-or-late-rising machine, and so forth.”

Part of John Muir's desk clock

Inventiveness may need to be more abstract these days, and who needs to worry about keeping candles lit to stay with it? But the zeal for discovery and application is the key factor that drove Muir and that inspires  anyone with a creative bent.

Learning is the fuse. “‘After the sawmill was proved and discharged from my mind,’ Muir wrote, ‘I happened to think it would be a fine thing to make 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 to have an attachment whereby it could be connected with a bedstead to set me on my feet any hour in the morning; also to start fires, light lamps, etc. I had learned the time laws of the pendulum from a book, but with this exception I knew nothing of timekeepers, for I had never seen the inside of any sort of clock or watch.

“‘After long brooding,’ Muir continued ‘the novel clock was at length completed in my mind, and was tried and found to be durable and to work well and look well before I had begun to build it in wood. I carried small parts of it in my pocket to whittle at when I was out at work on the farm, using every spare or stolen moment within reach without father’s knowing anything about it.'”

Muir’s Scottish pastor father frowned on anything not directly connected with farm work. And, of course, he discovered his son’s “mysterious machine back of the bedstead” in the spare bedroom where Muir was working on it.

“”John,’ he inquired, ‘what is that thing you are making upstairs?’

“”I replied in desperation that I didn’t know what to call it.’

“”What! You mean to say you don’t know what you are trying to do?’

“”Oh, yes,’I said, ‘I know very well what I am doing.’

“‘What, then, is the thing for?’

“‘It’s for a lot of things,’ I replied, ‘but  getting people up early in the morning is one of the main things it is intended for; therefore it might perhaps be called an early-rising machine.'”

Early-rising – that encapsulates the sprit behind discovery and inventiveness. Keeping ahead of a given day’s realities is what’s necessary to get beyond the present and contribute to the future, your own or the world’s.  John Muir certainly demonstrated that. – Doug Bedell



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