Conservationist John Muir’s Youthful Hobby: Inventing Amazing Alarm Clocks

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you think of John Muir, you might envision a bearded naturalist on a hike or standing in front of a magnificent natural vista. But Muir was more than a great explorer and advocate of national parks—he was also an ingenious inventor.

As a young boy in Scotland and later Wisconsin, Muir developed an obsession with clocks. There was just one problem: His authoritarian father, Daniel, filled every waking hour with chores and religious education. By the time he was 11 years old, John could recite three-quarters of the Old Testament and the entire New Testament “by sore flesh,” as he wrote in his memoir, a reference to the brutal beatings his father inflicted on him if he failed to fulfill his duties.

Daniel Muir had little patience for his son’s budding interest in engineering. So John came up with a solution: wake up earlier than the rest of the family and try out ideas he had come up with while plowing during the day. He began to get up at 1 a.m. to read.

“Five hours, almost half a day!” he later wrote. “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.” Soon he was doing more than reading: In the wee hours of the morning, he made a labor-saving sawmill.

His creativity stoked by his first success, Muir decided to figure out a way to make the most of his precious morning hours. The “early-rising machine,” as he called it, was not just a way to work on his engineering skills, it was a way to make sure he got out of bed. In his memoir of his boyhood, Muir describes the invention as “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 … have an attachment whereby it could be connected with a bedstead to set me on my feet at any hour in the morning; also to start fires, light lamps, etc.”

Muir faced several obstacles in creating his ambitious invention, however: Not only were his days crammed full of work, but he lacked both the raw materials and his father’s permission to spend time whittling instead of working. For months, Muir hoarded small scraps of wood, carving them in every spare moment, and hid his invention in a spare bedroom upstairs.

When his father finally discovered the machine, Muir thought he would burn it. But after delivering a lecture about the wickedness of spending spare time on “useless, nonsensical things,” he did nothing—and Muir finished it in full view. Despite his naysaying, Muir’s father even seems to have tried it out. “This he did repeatedly,” wrote Muir, “and evidently seemed a little proud of my ability to invent and whittle such a thing, though careful to give no encouragement for anything more of the kind in the future.”

Not that Muir needed much encouragement. Once his early-rising machine was finished, he made even more wooden clocks, including one shaped like a scythe that included the uplifting message “all flesh is grass.” Another clock was so large it could be read by the neighbors. (Muir’s father put a stop to that, fearing that it would draw too many onlookers.)

Once Muir got to college, he kept on inventing clocks. His dorm room at the University of Wisconsin, Madison doubled as a workshop, and he invented another alarm clock designed to help him excel in school. This desk alarm clock was perhaps his greatest mechanical triumph: Not only did it wake him up in the morning, it lit a lamp to illuminate the room, and after giving him a few minutes to dress, served up the first in a stack of study books—even opening the book up for Muir to read. A clicking device held the book in place for a specified amount of time, before closing it, sweeping it away, and putting the next book in its place. Muir even modified the machine to respond to the morning sun during the summer, using a glass lens on his windowsill to burn through a thread that would snap and trigger the clock’s mechanism.

John Muir's clockwork study desk.
Flickr // CC BY 2.0

But Muir’s most impressive invention didn’t involve wheels, cogs, or mechanics. Though he gained a reputation for his engineering, a machine accident that left him partially blind in 1867 pushed him more and more to his other love, the outdoors. In 1889, Muir drew a map that would change the world—a map of the boundaries of land in Yosemite, which he thought should be preserved by the federal government.

This led not just to the creation of Yosemite National Park, but to the Sierra Club—an organization Muir co-founded on May 28, 1892—which has advocated for the conservation of America’s natural glory for 125 years. Today, the inventor-turned-naturalist is considered one of the grandfathers of American preservation, but it all started with a curiosity honed during stolen hours, helped along by some very clever clocks.

Wednesday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Computer Monitors, Plant-Based Protein Powder, and Blu-ray Sets

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 2. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

Anti-Pasta: When Italian Futurists Tried to Ban Pasta in Italy

A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
Carlo Brogi, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While speaking at a multi-course banquet in Milan on November 15, 1930, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti presented his fellow Italians with an incendiary call to action. Pasta, he said, was a “passéist food” that “[deluded people] into thinking it [was] nutritious” and made them “heavy, brutish,” “skeptical, slow, [and] pessimistic.” As such, it should be abolished and replaced with rice.

So began an outrageous crusade against the country’s most beloved carbohydrate. Not only did Marinetti's movement elicit passionate reactions on both sides, but it also had some less-than-tenuous ties to Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.

Mr. Rice Guy

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (center) and his fellow Italian Futurists in Paris in 1912.Proa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marinetti’s initial statement spread so widely because he himself loomed large over society at the time. His 1909 “Manifesto of Futurism” launched the Futurist movement, which championed a shift away from the slow, outmoded processes of the past and toward the sleek technologies of the future. Though originally specific to art, Futurism was a nationalist cause at heart—a way for the newly unified country to catch up to other world powers—and it aligned with Mussolini’s fledgling political campaign. In fact, the two men collaborated closely while establishing their respective political parties (Marinetti’s Fasci Politici Futuristi and Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento) as World War I came to a close. Marinetti had distanced himself from Mussolini by the early 1920s, but he still invoked Il Duce’s policies when they served his goals.

For the pasta prohibition, they did. To make Italy less reliant on imported wheat, Mussolini’s administration had started promoting rice—which was much easier to produce domestically—over pasta. In the late 1920s, he established the “National Rice Board” and even declared November 1 to be “National Rice Day.” As Philip McCouat writes for the Journal of Art History, the dictator never went so far as to ban macaroni, but citizens were already familiar with anti-pasta sentiment by the time Marinetti began his smear campaign.

On December 28, 1930, the Futurist followed up his dinner speech with the “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,” co-written with the artist Luigi Colombo (known as “Fillìa”) and published in Turin’s Gazzetta del popolo. In it, they described pasta itself as an “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” and pasta lovers as being “shackled by its ball and chain like convicted lifers or [carrying] its ruins in their stomachs like archaeologists.”

In short, they believed that pasta weighed Italians down and prevented them from achieving any kind of greatness. The ultimate solution was for the government to replace all food with nutritional pills, powders, and other artificial substitutes, but until the chemists could create such innovations, the Futurists would settle for swapping out pasta with rice. “And remember too,” they wrote, “that the abolition of pasta will free Italy from expensive foreign wheat and promote the Italian rice industry.”

Starch Enemies and Allies

While Marinetti’s initial speech had incited a small uprising among Italians, his written manifesto gave the issue a global audience. “Fascist Writer, All Wound Up in Health Subject, Begs Countrymen to Swallow New Theory,” the Chicago Tribune summarized in an article titled “Italy May Down Spaghetti,” which hit newsstands just two days after Marinetti’s manifesto.

Smaller presses covered the bombshell, too. “No, signor. We beseech you, call off your holy war,” Ernest L. Meyer pontificated in Madison, Wisconsin’s The Capital Times. “Would you abolish macaroni and all its tunefully christened cousins—macaroncelli, foratini, maglietti, ditalini, vermicelli—and reduce Italians to the ugly dissonances of beans, cabbage, chops, chard, and chewing gum? Fie, signor, there is no poetry in your soul, and your palate lacks wit.”

Pasta drying in the streets of Naples in 1897.J.F. Jarvis, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

People living everywhere from France to Australia commented on the matter, but nowhere was the response more impassioned than in Italy. Women in the city of L’Aquila sent Marinetti a protest letter, and the mayor of Naples went so far as to proclaim that “the Angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli with tomato sauce.” (Marinetti later retorted that this was simply proof of “the unappetizing monotony of Paradise and of the life of the Angels.”) But Futurism wasn’t unpopular, and the pasta ban had ardent advocates of its own. Italian writer Marco Ramperti, for example, lambasted the beloved repast in a highly imaginative op-ed.

“[Pasta] puffs out our cheeks like grotesque masks on a fountain, it stuffs our gullets as if we were Christmas turkeys, it ties up our insides with its flabby strings; it nails us to the chair, gorged and stupefied, apoplectic and gasping, with [a] sensation of uselessness …” he wrote. “Our thoughts wind round each other, get mixed up and tangled like the vermicelli we’ve taken in.”

The Movement Loses Steam

Marinetti collected the best testimonies from scientists, chefs, and literary firebrands like Ramperti and reproduced them in 1932’s La Cucina Futurista (“The Futurist Cookbook”), which also contained Futurist recipes and instructions for hosting various kinds of Futurist dinner parties. But the 1930s were an exceptionally tumultuous decade for the country—which faced the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler’s growing influence, a war with Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and eventually World War II—and Italian citizens were focused less on what they were eating and more on simply eating.

Two Neapolitan boys eating plates of pasta, date unknown.Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Furthermore, Futurism soon ran afoul of fascism. In 1937, Hitler decried modern art as “degenerate,” anti-nationalist, and somehow inherently Jewish. Though Marinetti spoke out against these associations, anti-Semitism had already infected Italy, and fascists started condemning the Futurist movement. Since Mussolini was courting Hitler as an ally, his regime’s ties to Futurism could easily have become a political liability. In 1939, when Marinetti published a fiery denial of Hitler’s accusations in a Futurist journal called Artecrazia, the government forced it to shutter.

So, by the 1940s, Marinetti was no longer spewing consistent vitriol against pasta, Il Duce was no longer supporting the Futurist movement, and the world at large was consumed with much greater threats than linguini-induced languor. And if Marinetti ever entertained fantasies about resurrecting the cause after the war, he never got the chance—he died of a heart attack in December 1944, just months before the deaths of both Mussolini and Hitler the following April.