John Muir's clockwork desk

Molly sends us this clockwork study desk built by naturalist John Muir while at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1861-1863:

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, all the day being divided according to the times of recitation, and time required and allotted to each study.
(Thanks, Molly!)


  1. If anyone in the Madison, WI area wants to get a close up look, this desk sits in a glass case just inside the entrance to the State Historical Society across the street from the UW student union.

  2. Thanks for that info argelsplage. I go past there all the time. I’ll check it out.

    If I remember correctly, Thomas Jefferson designed himself a revolving stand that kept multiple books open. But Muir’s bed and study contraption are like Wallace and Gromit!

  3. Sounds like the creator of Wallace & Gromit may have gotten some ideas from this guy.

  4. What a wonderful contraption! But how could it possibly save as much time as it cost to design and build?

  5. Good question, Eustace. Muir whittled and sawed his early inventions out of scraps in the dead of night when his family was asleep. He grew up in a frugal farming family that permitted no waste of time or materials. The “scholar’s chair” pictured above is just one of many fascinating things he designed and built.

    The last couple of chapters Muir’s “My Boyhood and Youth” deal with his inventions and what inspired them. It’s good reading, but it makes you feel guilty about sitting at your desktop.

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