Old, Weird Tech: John Muir Mechanical GTD Desk Edition


David Allen's time management trickery has nothing on John Muir's 19th-century gadget-aided study practices

Desk clock.jpg

John Muir is known as a environmental conservationist. He founded the Sierra Club and penned many an article -- like this one for The Atlantic -- advocating the preservation of the nation's wilderness areas.

Less apparent from a cursory investigation of his career is that he was inveterate inventor and gadgethead. While a student, he came up with all kinds of strange contraptions like an alarm clock that pushed him out of bed. You can see packet of his sketches at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

But it's the mechanical desk you see above that interests me most because of what it says about the newness of the getting things done ethic.

Here's how Muir described the invention in his book, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth:

I still indulged my love of mechanical inventions. I invented a desk in which the books I had to study were arrange in order at the beginning of each term. I also invented 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, the 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.

In other words, this desk was a timer that kept Muir on task for exactly the periods that he'd set to study Latin or botany or whatever else he was supposed to be learning. Muir was like David Allen before there was a David Allen*. At a time when accessing information required more effort, it still took human effort to stay on task. And when that human effort failed, it took funny gimmicks that kept our minds from wandering.

H/T: Adam Lerner, director of MCA Denver.

* Update: In a somewhat humorous but embarrassing mistake, my mind appended Cohen to David Allen's name, an accidental, subconscious reference to the controversial outlaw country singer, David Allan Coe. We regret the error.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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