John Muir, the Original Steampunk - OZY | A Modern Media Company

John Muir, the Original Steampunk

John Muir, the Original Steampunk

By Nate Barksdale

Sunlight shines down on a cloverfield inside of Muir Woods.
SourceRyan Fernandez


Sometimes the road to wilderness enlightement leads through the inventor’s workshop.

By Nate Barksdale

You know him, if at all, as the bearded sage of the California upcountry, the co-founder and first president of the Sierra Club, guiding spirit of the National Park Service. He’s the man who said, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” and who claimed he never saw a discontented tree. But in 1850s Wisconsin, John Muir was just a weird kid with a Scottish accent and a genius for inventing improved sawmills and clockwork labor-saving devices — mechanisms for controlling nature, not extolling it.

His first creation was a water-powered, self-setting sawmill.

Wooden desk contraption, very cool looking and innovative

John Muir’s clock desk

Source Wisconsin Historical Society

The Muir family immigrated from Dunbar, Scotland, to a farm near Portage, Wis., in 1849. John, the third of Daniel and Ann Muir’s eight children, grew up in a strictly religious household that valued hard work and Biblical knowledge above everything else. 

Muir seized on inventing as a means of winning his father’s approval. It was a logical choice: Muir biographer Donald Hall writes that the inventor tradition in Scottish Protestantism made such work “a widely approved way of seeing God and man.” James Watt’s improved steam engine had powered the Industrial Revolution since 1776; William Murdoch had pioneered the use of coal gas for lighting, and John Loudon McAdam had lent his name to the precursor to today’s asphalt roads. 

Muir’s early inventions were attuned to the needs and materials encountered in the backwoods. His first creation was a water-powered, self-setting sawmill. Soon he moved on to prototyping “water-wheels, curious door locks 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.”  

Painting of John Miur in color looking down reading

Is this the original steampunk?

These same inventions were Muir’s entry ticket to the larger world. His whittled wooden clocks proved popular among the neighbors and at trade fairs. When he left for college at the University of Wisconsin, his baggage consisted of two clocks and a thermometer, all made by hand.

At the university he studied at a clockwork desk that fed him his textbooks hour by hour and took his first botany class – launching him on the trajectory that would lead him – by way of short stints in lumber mills, an industrial accident that temporarily blinded him and a thousand-mile walk from Indiana to Florida – to his true home in the California wilderness.  

Muir walked into the Yosemite Valley on May 22, 1868. There he explored its crags, forests and hidden meadows and built himself a cabin of wind-downed trees (processed with a water-powered sawmill he rigged up). He even rerouted part of Yosemite Creek to flow through the corner of his cabin, so he could enjoy its murmurs from his indoor hammock. 

At the university he studied at a clockwork desk that fed him his textbooks hour by hour…

In 1871 the transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Muir in the Yosemite Valley and left so impressed with the Scotsman’s wilderness philosophy that he offered him a teaching post at Harvard. Muir was thrilled by the moment of communion with his idol but disappointed that the Sage of Concord refused Muir’s plan to sleep on the ground in a grove of giant sequoias.

In 1880 Muir came down from the mountains to marry the daughter of a Martinez, Calif., fruit baron. For the next decade he indulged his inventive spirit once more as he managed 2,600 acres of orchards and vineyards, inventing labor-saving devices to aid in the planting of vines and the packaging of raisins. Then, with his family income more or less secure, he turned to the interior work of writing about the Western wilderness. When the Sierra Club was founded in 1892 to promote exploration and conservation in the California mountains, Muir was the obvious choice for its first president.

In 1903 Muir entertained President Theodore Roosevelt in the Yosemite Valley. Unlike Emerson, TR was willing to sleep in the rough, and during three nights of campfire chats, Muir convinced him to protect Yosemite and make conservation a focus of his remaining presidency. All told Roosevelt created five national parks, 55 wildlife refuges and 150 national forests.

So what do we make of the contrast between Muir the inventor and Muir the outdoor mystic? In many ways Muir set the mold for a type of exemplary Northern Californian, existing in the simultaneous thrall of nature and technology. Muir’s clockwork explorations of time and efficiency would have been at home at Burning Man or the Maker Faire.

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