Shirk, Joseph S. (1820-1902)

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Joseph S. Shirk: amateur inventor, mathematician and astronomer and Weaverland Conference Old Order Mennonite Church member; born 30 January 1820, southeast of Churchtown, Pennsylvania, the son of Peter and Sarah (Sensenig) Shirk. In 1850 he married Elizabeth Horning (10 April 1826–8 December 1901), the daughter of Joseph and Fannie (Musser) Horning.

Joseph S. Shirk was exceptionally talented intellectually, although he never acquired an education beyond the typical grade school in his local community. At the age of 16, while working in his father's shop, he constructed a grain cradle that could cut wheat as fast as four grown men. He later worked for his uncle Christian as a surveyor, and built his own transit which was very precise and saved time while surveying.

After marriage, Joseph S. Shirk moved to a farm south of Turkey Hill in East Earl Township. He also made a revolver, which he later sold to a man on a railroad car as he traveled home from Indiana. Family tradition states that in 1870, a group of engineers came from Europe with their plans for the St. Gothard Tunnel to connect the railroad between Lucerne, Switzerland and Milan, Italy.  The engineers contacted a firm in Philadelphia, which told them to venture to Lancaster County to find Joseph Shirk who could give them advice and determine if their calculations were correct. After the digging was complete, the two ends met within half an inch.

Joseph S. Shirk was also an astronomer and calculated solar and lunar eclipses ahead of time. Many of the local community did not understand the methods by which he foretold the future. When he explained his calculations of the eclipses, the position of the earth revolving around the sun and the moon revolving around the earth, a skeptical church member challenged his belief by quoting Psalm 93:1: "The world also is established that it cannot be moved."

Joseph was also extremely fond of botany and could name all the plants, herbs and weeds that grew within miles of his home. He died on 19 August 1902 and is buried in the Lichty Mennonite Church cemetery less than a mile from his farm.


Rempel Smucker, David J. Inventor Joe: The Life and Work of Mennonite Joseph Shirk (1820-1902) in Lancaster County. Ephrata, PA: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2008.

Shirk, Sarah E. Descendants of Joseph Shirk, Inventor-Surveyor (1820-1902), and Esther Horning. Framingham, MA: S.E. Shirk, 1998.

Archival Records

Muddy Creek Farm Library Archives, 296 Wheat Ridge Drive, Ephrata, PA 17522-8557.

Author(s) Jonathan H Martin
Date Published October 2011

Cite This Article

MLA style

Martin, Jonathan H. "Shirk, Joseph S. (1820-1902)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. October 2011. Web. 25 Oct 2020.,_Joseph_S._(1820-1902)&oldid=84932.

APA style

Martin, Jonathan H. (October 2011). Shirk, Joseph S. (1820-1902). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 October 2020, from,_Joseph_S._(1820-1902)&oldid=84932.

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