Al-Jazari's Elephant Clock and other Islamic Inventions
August 6, 2008 10:14 AM   Subscribe

Al-Jazari is the best-known Islamic inventor of the Middle Ages, famous for his waterclocks and automata. The wonderful History of Science and Technology in Islam has articles on him as well as other subjects. A medieval manuscript of Al-Jazari's masterwork, a book generally known in English as either Book of Knowledge of Mechanical Devices, can be perused in its entirety in flash form. It includes 174 illustrations. If you want to see working copies of his most famous automaton, the Elephant Clock, you can go either to the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai (Flickr pictures), the Musée d'Horlogerie du Locle in Switzerland (Cabinet of Wonders post about visiting the museum) or Institute for the History of Arab-Islamic Science in Frankfurt (article about the institute from a feature in Saudi Aramco World magazine called Rediscovering Arabic Science).
posted by Kattullus (13 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
The original title of Al-Jazari's book is الجامع بين العلم و العمل النافع في صناعة الحيل (A Compendium on the Theory and Practice of the Mechanical Arts).

One odd thing. In the manuscript I linked to most of the faces have been effaced.
posted by Kattullus at 10:26 AM on August 6, 2008

Kattullus, will you marry me?
posted by ikahime at 10:40 AM on August 6, 2008

Awesome! I just finished The Genius of China1 and I already knew about some of the more famous Greeks, Romans and Europeans, so that got me wondering about MidEast of the same time period. I know! And that's half the battle.

1Although, and not to derail, I find myself skeptical of this book. I already knew some of the claims are true, but the tone of the book is...somewhat propagandistic. The entire focus seems to be showing how far ahead China was on everything in existence. There's even a multipage chart in the back showing how many years ahead they were for many different inventions. I guess the author has a crankish book in his history too, but this one is largely based on Joseph Needham who seems to have been eccentric but not a crank...?
posted by DU at 10:40 AM on August 6, 2008

This is great. One of the books I'm in the middle of right now is Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists by Michael Hamilton Morgan. So far, it's a great (and illuminating) read.

posted by NoMich at 10:45 AM on August 6, 2008


That says cLock.

Yeah. Neat.
posted by notyou at 10:49 AM on August 6, 2008

Dubai is a city. Switzerland is a country. Why did you not name the town of the museum, which is "Le Locle", in Canton Jurra? I can get there in 3 hours from my house, by train, I discovered. Which is to say, thanks, I must see this clock!
posted by Goofyy at 11:16 AM on August 6, 2008

Oh, one other thing, the article about Al-Jazari in History of Science and Technology of Islam mentions that there's a medieval combination lock somewhere in Boston. I don't suppose anyone happens to know where it is? I'd be interested in seeing it.

Goofyy: Dubai is a city. Switzerland is a country. Why did you not name the town of the museum, which is "Le Locle", in Canton Jurra?

Well, mostly because Le Locle is mentioned in the name of the Museum. I specified it was in Switzerland because Le Locle is considerably less known than either Dubai or Frankfurt.
posted by Kattullus at 11:24 AM on August 6, 2008

Is there a decent name for the time period when the Arab and Arab-diaspora of early Islam was doing all of the amazing things it did in art and science and math and medicine and philosophy?

I want to say "Islamic Renaissance," but it isn't really a rebirth, and I can't think of anything better.
posted by paisley henosis at 11:45 AM on August 6, 2008

posted by DU at 12:16 PM on August 6, 2008

I find confusing the various references to Islamic, Arab, Persian and science without the differentiation that surely exist between them.
posted by semmi at 12:24 PM on August 6, 2008

Al-Tusi made his observations without ctelescopes or even glasses,” says Djebbar, removing his own spectacles and waving them theatrically in the air. “Even though the Arabs possessed the knowledge to make lenses, they probably thought it was an idiotic idea. God made us like this; why hang something on our noses to see better?” he jokes, placing his glasses back on his nose with a flourish.

Strange. Al-Tusi takes a cheerleading role in that article, singing the praises of classical Islam's technological prowess.

And yet, in that little throwaway comment -- assuming that his characterization is accurate -- he refers to cultural limitations that will, of necessity, limit the progress of science and technology.

Declining to apply your insights to the world in order to change it, out of deference to the wishes of a supernatural entity, is a recipe for stasis, not innovation.

Maybe that's why we are speaking of the golden age of Islamic science in the past tense.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:54 PM on August 6, 2008

Djebbar takes a cheerleading role. Sorry 'bout that.
posted by jason's_planet at 1:00 PM on August 6, 2008

I find confusing the various references to Islamic, Arab, Persian and science without the differentiation that surely exist between them.

Confusing? Surely you mean "irritating," because there's little to be confused about here. The three cultures mentioned are being distinguished, in this context, not from one another, but from European, Asian and most African cultures. Not mentioning the distinctions between the former cultures would be unforgivable in a dissertation; here, in these articles and the fpp itself, it's no more a crime than talking about "gamers" without mentioning, by the way, there's a difference between PC games, video games, and arcade games... It goes without saying, and if you want to research those differences, the information can be found elsewhere.

Kattullus, excellent post. I haven't read a copy of Saudi Aramco World in quite some time, but you have renewed my curiosity.
posted by voltairemodern at 11:52 AM on August 7, 2008

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