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Among The Works Of God And Man

Spring/Summer 1988 | Volume 4 |  Issue 1

John Muir spent most of his life, as he put it, in “the study of the inventions of God.” He was a world-renowned naturalist and conservationist, a respected botanist and glaciologist, and a writer who with words brought the wild areas he loved to millions. But before he took up his pursuit of untouched places, he first devoted himself to what might seem an opposite world: he was a tireless inventor and mechanic, a few of whose creations might have made him rich had he bothered to patent them.

Muir was born in Scotland on April 21, 1838, one hundred and fifty years ago this spring. He spent much of his childhood in backbreaking labor on his father’s pioneer Wisconsin farm, to which the family emigrated when he was eleven. While in his teens he exhibited the tinkerer’s spirit that was so invaluable on a frontier farm. His first real invention was a sort of self-setting model sawmill, workable but not particularly practical. There followed waterwheels, wooden clocks, barometers, and more.

In 1860 an admiring neighbor persuaded Murr to demonstrate his ingenuity at the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair, in Madison. The judges there pronounced him “a genius in the best sense” and gave him a special award for his exhibit, which included two hickory clocks and an “early-rising machine” that tumbled the sleeper out of bed at a preset time. At the fair he was offered a job as apprentice to a Prairie du Chien man who was perfecting a Mississippi iceboat.

The boat never sailed, and Muir soon returned to Madison and got himself admitted on probation to the fledgling University of Wisconsin. His roommate later recalled that Muir kept “a strange-looking room for a college student … shelves, one above the other … were filled with retorts, glass tubes, glass jars, botanical and geological specimens and small mechanical contrivances. On the floor … were a number of machines of larger size, whose purposes were not apparent ”

There were no laboratory facilities at the university, so Muir built his own. He constructed, among other things, “a little device for measuring the growth of plants, so delicate that… one could see the hand move across the dial, measuring growth from hour to hour.” He invented an automatic desk, which took a stack of books, delivered each one, turned its pages, and replaced it, all according to a set schedule.

Cheerful but restless—and wanting to avoid Civil War conscription—Muir left college to work at the mill and factory of two Scottish immigrants in Ontario. There he devised his most serious inventions yet, a self-feeding lathe and a machine to bore and drive teeth for the rakes the factory made. The plant’s production doubled.

“Great God!” Muir later wrote. “There were times when I was haunted with inventions that tortured me waking or sleeping until I could give them visible form, something that could be seen and touched, something that worked. My mind and heart were both given to them.” But he was torn between that urge and another: a desire to devote himself to botany. He had an almost mystical yearning to get into the world’s untrammeled places.

He next went to work at an Indianapolis wagon-parts plant, where he amazed his employers not only with production-multiplying innovations but also with a pioneer time-and-motion study. The owners offered him a partnership, but it was too late. In March 1867 an accident at the factory temporarily blinded Muir. As his sight returned, he resolved to “bid adieu to mechanical inventions” and take up “the study of the inventions of God.” He started by hiking a thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico and traveling on to California.

“I could have become a millionaire,” he crowed, “and I chose to become a tramp.” He did once attempt to patent his early-rising bed, but that was all; he believed that “no inventor has the right to profit by an invention … really inspired by the Almighty.”

In the succeeding years he became a powerful lobbyist in behalf of national parks and forests. He uncovered the origins of American glacial masses and identified the importance of trees as watersheds and soil protectors. In 1892 he founded the Sierra Club.

For him, all his conservationist activities strained toward the same ideal as his earlier technological work. He once wrote from Yosemite Valley, “I have this big, well-defined faith for humanity as workman, that the time is coming when every ‘article of manufacture’ will be as purely a work of God as are these waters and pine trees and bonnie loving flowers.”

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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