Monday, June 14, 2010

John Muir's Scythe Clock and Hay Rakes

"...mowing and cradling, the most exhausting of all the farm work..."
                                       - John Muir  (1838-1914)

John Muir was no fan of the heavy American scythe and cradle, but his many inventions include a pendulum clock shaped like a scythe with "All flesh is grass" written on the snath.

John Muir was eleven when his family emigrated from Scotland to "Amaraka."  They initially were headed for Canada, but they ended up in Wisconsin to establish a farm and grow wheat.  This is a picture of Muir's Lake (Fountain Lake) and Garden Meadow that he sketched from their shanty roof: 

Of his farming life, Muir later wrote:

"In those early days, long before the great labor-saving machines came to our help, almost everything connected with wheat-raising abounded in trying work — cradling in the long, sweaty dog-days, raking and binding, stacking, thrashing — and it often seemed to me that our fierce, over-industrious way of getting the grain from the ground was too closely connected with grave-digging. The staff of life, naturally beautiful, oftentimes suggested the grave-digger's spade. Men and boys, and in those days even women and girls, were cut down while cutting the wheat. The fat folk grew lean and the lean leaner, while the rosy cheeks brought from Scotland and other cool countries across the sea faded to yellow like the wheat. We were all made slaves through the vice of over-industry. 

"The same was in great part true in making hay to keep the cattle and horses through the long winters. We were called in the morning at four o'clock and seldom got to bed before nine, making a broiling, seething day seventeen hours long loaded with heavy work, while I was only a small stunted boy; and a few years later my brothers David and Daniel and my older sisters had to endure about as much as I did. In the harvest dog-days and dog-nights and dog-mornings, when we arose from our clammy beds, our cotton shirts clung to our backs as wet with sweat as the bathing-suits of swimmers, and remained so all the long, sweltering days. In mowing and cradling, the most exhausting of all the farm work, I made matters worse by foolish ambition in keeping ahead of the hired men. Never a warning word was spoken of the dangers of over-work. On the contrary, even when sick we were held to our tasks as long as we could stand. Once in harvest-time I had the mumps and was unable to swallow any food except milk, but this was not allowed to make any difference, while I staggered with weakness and sometimes fell headlong among the sheaves. Only once was I allowed to leave the harvest-field — when I was stricken down with pneumonia. I lay gasping for weeks, but the Scotch are hard to kill and I pulled through. No physician was called, for father was an enthusiast, and always said and believed that God and hard work were by far the best doctors."

John Muir was no fan of the heavy American scythe and cradle, but his many inventions include a hand-carved wooden clock shaped like a scythe, which he displayed at the 1860 Wisconsin State Fair.  A drawing of the Scythe Clock is shown above; the original document and actual components of some of John's inventions, including the Scythe Clock, are kept at the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum and can be viewed here:;

Regarding this Scythe Clock, Muir wrote:

"Inventing and whittling faster than ever, I made another hickory clock, shaped like a scythe to symbolize the scythe of Father Time. The pendulum is a bunch of arrows symbolizing the flight of time. It hangs on a leafless mossy oak snag showing the effect of time, and on the snath is written, "All flesh is grass."

An acquaintance of Muir's named Harvey Reid wrote this description of the clock:

"The other clock, also fashioned with no other tools than a jackknife and a hammer, was a wonderful revelation of rustic ingenuity and poetic instinct. It was wholly emblematic of old Father Time, being a combination of scythes, wheels and arrows. A rough bough of burr oak was set upon a base incrusted with moss. In one of the branches hung a miniature scythe with a regularly fashioned snathe and handles. At the place of union were attached two wooden scythes [blades], swelling slightly from each other, but united at the points. Filling the space between the scythes from heels to points was a succession of wooden cog-wheels and small wooden dials.

"Depending from the scythe points was a wooden pendulum in the shape of an arrow, hanging point down. At its lower end forming the ball of the pendulum, was a cluster of six copper arrows, crossed. These had been hammered out of the large copper cents in use at that day. To the upper end of the arrow pendulum was attached two tin copper scythes (also formed out of coins) which, as the pendulum swung, would move as in mowing, the points of the scythes at each swing catching a cog in the little wheel placed there, thus setting in motion the whole machinery. In addition to the records of the larger clock, this one told also the month and the year, and could be attached to the bed alarm... [ apparatus attached by a light cord to a delicate set of levers at the foot of his bed. The frame of the bed was hung on trunnions; and, at a desired hour the clock would release a catch and the sleeper be tilted to nearly a standing posture.]"

In 1864, Muir went to Canada for a few years, where he got a job in a woodworking factory in Ontario.  He was contracted to produce 12,000 hay rakes and 30,000 broom handles, as well as to make improvements to the production process. 

From an essay by Bruce Cox:

"...he nearly doubled the production of broom handles...  He placed one handle in position while the other was being turned. It required great activity for him to put away the turned handle and place the new one in position during the turning process. When he could do this there would be eight broom handles turned in a minute."  

"...He designed and started making several automatic machines for the manufacture of different parts of agricultural tools, for example a machine to make teeth for the rakes, and another to install them. The man who designed the alarm clock bed now had a number of ingenious new arrangements of gears, belts and pulleys to play with."

During this time when Muir was making hay rakes and broom handles, he wrote the following in a letter to Jeanne Carr:

"I have been very busy of late making practical machinery. I like my work exceeding well but would prefer inventions which would require some artistic as well as mechanical skill. I invented and put in operation a few days ago an attachment for a self acting lathe which has increased its capacity at least one third, we are now using it to turn broom handles, and as these useful articles may now be made cheaper, and as cleanliness is one of the cardinal virtues, I congratulate myself in having done something like a true philanthropist for the real good of mankind in general. What say you?

"I have also invented a machine for making rake teeth, and another for boring for them, & driving them, and still another for making the bows, still another used in making the handles, still another for bending them, so that rakes may now be made nearly as fast again. Farmers will be able to produce grain at a lower rate, the poor get more bread to eat. Here is more philanthropy - is it not?"

Muir later went on to become a well-known naturalist, writer, and advocate for the preservation of wilderness.  He was a co-founder of the Sierra Club, and his activism helped establish Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, among other accomplishments.

Although he survived the affliction as a child, Muir died of pneumonia at age 76.  The US Postal Service honored Muir with stamps in 1964 and 1998, and the California Quarter issued by the US Mint in 2005 featured John Muir in Yosemite Valley.

(Sources:    Wisconsin Historical Society, 816 State Street, Madison, WI 53706:  
 Scythe Clock full image at higher resolution:;
 Wisconsin Historical Museum, 30 N. Carroll St, Madison, WI 53703,;
"The Story of My Boyhood and Youth", book by John Muir, with illustrations from sketches by the author, 1913,;
"College Friend Describes Muir's Mechanical Marvels", article by Harvey Reid, Outlook, November 28, 1903, v. 75, pp. 763-764,
Reprinted from The John Muir Newsletter , V.4, No.3, Summer 1994:;
"John Muir and His Canadian Friends", essay by Bruce Cox,;
Letter from John Muir to Jeanne C. Carr, 1866 Jan 21:;
Other references:,,,
"A passion for nature: the life of John Muir", book by Donald Worster, Oxford University Press, 2008)