Story of Boyhood Reveals Well-Known Nature Advocate’s Skill in Inventing

Tucked among countless other books in the Special Collections stacks of rare books lies a rather unassuming looking text. It is green, with a lone tree pictured in the center of the cover and a grapevine frame going around, with the title, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, spelled out in gold lettering. Yet this rather plain looking book contains accounts of a childhood spent farming, exploring the wilderness of Scotland, and designing and producing numerous fascinating inventions.

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John Muir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1913) (Rare book QH31. M9 A35)

The author recalls the time he devoted to his “love of mechanical inventions,” saying:

I invented a desk 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….(283-284)

When later the author decided to start his day with the rising sun instead of a pre-determined hour, he created a device that used sunlight, directed through a lens, to burn through a thread attached to his bed, allowing it to propel him from his

Illustration of Muir's combined thermometer, hygrometer, barometer, and pyrometer, from The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, p. 196.

Illustration of Muir’s combined thermometer, hygrometer, barometer, and pyrometer, from The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, p. 196.

slumber. In devising such an ingenious system, the young man poetically muses that he “took Emerson’s advice and hitched [his] dumping-wagon bed to a star” (284).

The bright young inventor was none other than John Muir (1838-1914), whom many know as a great nature lover and the father of the national park system. While the legacy of Muir’s passion and activism for the appreciation of American landscapes lives on in the areas now preserved as parks and sanctuaries, the vestiges of his love for inventing and woodworking survive in institutions like Special Collections—which houses this book—and others, like the Wisconsin Historical Society, which has Muir’s impressively intricate clockwork desk.

Illustration of clockwork desk, from The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, p. 284-285.

Illustration of clockwork desk, from The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, p. 284. (Rare book QH31. M9 A35)

Check out Muir’s other texts in W&M Libraries!

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