A Medieval Arabic Manuscript Features the Designs for a “Perpetual Flute” and Other Ingenious Mechanical Devices

In the late twelfth and ear­ly thir­teenth cen­tu­ry there lived a mechan­i­cal­ly inclined poly­math named Badi’ al-Zaman Abu-‘l-‘Izz Ibn Isma’il Ibn al-Raz­zaz al-Jazari, whom we might pre­fer sim­ply to call Al-Jazari. A res­i­dent of Diyar-Bakir, in mod­ern-day Turkey, he was employed as a court engi­neer, and indeed, proved to be the finest engi­neer for which a Mesopotami­an ruler of that era could hope. He worked out a vari­ety of func­tion­al camshafts, crank­shafts, pumps, foun­tains, and clocks, not to men­tion his more ambi­tious designs, includ­ing a host of humanoid automa­ta meant to han­dle tasks like serv­ing bev­er­ages and even play­ing music.

Lying between the prac­ti­cal and the fan­ci­ful are such Al-Jazar­i­an inven­tions as the “per­pet­u­al flute,” a dia­gram of which you can see at the site of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. Involv­ing “two adja­cent tanks, each with a plug attached to a chain,” the set­up would work when “the pipe on an axle with a bowl fills with water from a chan­nel at the upper right and tips so that water flows into one tank. The air in the tank is thus forced through a pipe attached to a jar that plays a flute until the tank is filled. Then the pipe tilts to fill the oth­er tank with water, caus­ing the oth­er flute to play.” Like a pre-mod­ern Rube Gold­berg, Al-Jazari cre­at­ed mechan­i­cal con­cepts that are bet­ter seen than explained, and you’ll find many more of them illus­trat­ed at Flash­bak.

These works of schemat­ic art come not from Al-Jazari’s own hand, but from an Ara­bic man­u­script cre­at­ed some three to six cen­turies after his death. It appears to pay a kind of trib­ute to his pop­u­lar Book of Knowl­edge of Inge­nious Mechan­i­cal Devices, which itself drew upon a ninth-cen­tu­ry Book of Inge­nious Devices writ­ten by three Per­sian broth­ers known as the Banu Musa. All of these artis­tic and tech­ni­cal works, and their con­tin­ued avail­abil­i­ty in dif­fer­ent forms through the gen­er­a­tions, reflect the seri­ous work of intel­lec­tu­al cus­to­di­an­ship and devel­op­ment across the civ­i­liza­tions of the Mid­dle East after the fall of the Roman Empire — a project that great­ly ben­e­fit­ed from the occa­sion­al sui gener­is imag­i­na­tion like Al-Jazari’s.

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via Flash­bak

Relat­ed con­tent:

Behold Fan­tas­ti­cal Illus­tra­tions from the 13th Cen­tu­ry Ara­bic Man­u­script Mar­vels of Things Cre­at­ed and Mirac­u­lous Aspects of Things Exist­ing

Down­load 10,000+ Books in Ara­bic, All Com­plete­ly Free, Dig­i­tized and Put Online

A 13th-Cen­tu­ry Cook­book Fea­tur­ing 475 Recipes from Moor­ish Spain Gets Pub­lished in a New Trans­lat­ed Edi­tion

How Ara­bic Trans­la­tors Helped Pre­serve Greek Phi­los­o­phy … and the Clas­si­cal Tra­di­tion

500+ Beau­ti­ful Man­u­scripts from the Islam­ic World Now Dig­i­tized & Free to Down­load

The Only Sur­viv­ing Text Writ­ten in Ara­bic by an Amer­i­can Slave Has Been Dig­i­tized & Put Online: Read the Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Enslaved Islam­ic Schol­ar, Omar Ibn Said (1831)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Bruce says:

    So.… it looks like Rube Gold­berg was Arab.…
    Who knew ??


  • Bruce says:

    Satire.… NOT Sar­casm.….


  • Ash says:

    Great sto­ry on under­es­ti­mat­ed sci­en­tif­ic con­tri­bu­tions of the Arab civ­i­liza­tion. Thank you,

  • David Rustin Lea says:

    I have been inter­est­ed in Al Jazari for quite a while. I think the pur­pose of the first mech­a­nism illus­trat­ed is not well enough under­stood. It may have been described as a “whis­tle”, but the impor­tant aspect of this inven­tion is the steady air pres­sure it pro­vid­ed. This was need­ed for so many of the indus­tries that were devel­op­ing all over the mid­dle east that even­tu­al­ly passed on to Europe as the forests of the mid­dle east were destroyed. The only fuel for bronze, iron, steel, glass, and ceram­ic work­shops was char­coal! To obtain the 1000 degrees or so for most of these oper­a­tions they need­ed a steady stream of air! This is basi­cal­ly a hydo-bel­lows with many appli­ca­tions.

    The envi­ron­ment went through enor­mous changes from the dis­cov­ery of tin and the result­ing bronze indus­try in about 3000 BC (prob­a­bly in present day Afghanistan) to the col­lapse of the entire mid­dle east­ern econ­o­my when Spain start­ed strip­ping the Amer­i­c­as of gold and sil­ver and dump­ing them into the new world. It was like print­ing way too much cur­ren­cy! Even­tu­al­ly the final nail went in the cof­fin when the Ottoman Sul­tan, in des­per­a­tion to raise tax­es, taxed the trees!

    That is how Europe sud­den­ly took the lead — forests and rivers and moun­tain streams galore!

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