The Perpetual Flute and al-Jazari’s Library

Introduction

The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices contains quite a few musical automatons. Some of them such as the musical boat we have already met in previous posts, others such as the world’s first drum machine, we will meet in a future post. The fourth category deals mainly with fountains, but there are also four perpetual flutes, which use the flow of water to compress the air through a flute thus replacing the flautist. Al-Jazari specified three sources for his works, Apollonius the Indian carpenter, a drawing from an unknown source, and a work by the eminent inventor, Hibat Alla b.al Husayn al Astrurlabi. It made me wonder about his library.

Figure 1 The perpetual flute, scattered pages (copy from 1315) (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

How does the flute work?

The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in the tilting pipes and floats can skip those bits. This is a drawing from the book, and I added labels for clarity.

Figure 2 The perpetual flute (1206). Topkapi manuscript (with added labels)

There is a constant water supply to the perpetual flute. The water flows into the bowl welded to a transverse pipe that can be tilted (tilting pipe). The pipe is slightly heavier on the side of tank A, and the water thus flows into that tank. The air is pushed out, and the only way is through flute A, so a sound is heard. Although it is called a ‘flute’, it is more like a whistle as the pitch cannot be changed, and there is no parallel for different fingering producing different notes. At the same time, plug B is pulled out, thus emptying tank B. The water will continue to flow into tank A and float A will rise with it. At some point, float  A will push the tilting pipe upward, and shift the water flow to tank B. The water will rise in tank B  and the only route for the air will be through flute B. This process repeats itself as long as the waters supply continues.

 

The literature survey and al-Jazari’s Library

Any research or technology development project starts with a literature survey. Students, especially in the early stages of their training in science or technology, feel that the survey is tedious, and perhaps a formality and not helpful. But in time they will learn that the survey is needed to map the current information available and is essential from the very early stages of understanding the theory and developing the methodology until the final stage of writing the paper, the patent request or the research report. Modern scientific disciplines emerged centuries after al-Jazari. I do not know if literature surveys were the norm in early scientific papers. Was al-Jazari a precursor in using them or is he following a known path? In previous posts, we saw references, and a critique of the work of Archimedes and the Banu Musa. But in this chapter three resources are mentioned:

  • “I came across a well-known paper by Apollonius, the Indian carpenter: he made a wheel which turns slowly and opens water outlets…”
  • “I also examined another old instrument, about which I found no written report, but a drawing. In this, the flute is like a nay having eight holes”.
  • “I [also] examined a paper written in Baghdad in year 517 A.H. by the eminent inventor Hibat Allah al-Husayn al-Asturlibl, in which he makes a real innovation….”

Figure 3 Treatise on the Design and Construction of a Hydraulic Flute Playing Machine. Attributed to ‘Apollonius the Carpenter and Geometer’ (sixteenth century) (British Library: Oriental Manuscripts)

In the next post about the perpetual flute with two tipping buckets, I hope to elaborate on these early works and what survived the hundreds of years that passed. However, the fact that al-Jazari had three different sources for the perpetual flute made me think that he had quite an impressive library. Was this the Diyarbakir Palace Library? In the library, were there shelves dedicated to engineering and technology? Who else was reading these books? Maybe these books were in his workshop? Manuscripts were done by hand and required a lot of careful writing and drawing. The price of a manuscript must have been very high, so how would it have been possible? I wish we had answers to all these questions, but we do not. However, some more general information is available.

 

Manuscripts and libraries in the golden age of Islam

Paper was invented in ancient China. Legend says that two Chinese prisoners captured by the Abbasid Empire after the victory in the Battle of Talas (Kyrgyzstan) in 751, revealed the secrets of paper making. I do not know if this true or not, but there is enough historical evidence for a dramatic paper revolution in the Muslim world in the ninth and the tenth century. In Baghdad, the Chinese art of paper making was improved and mechanized. Linen and rags replaced the traditional mulberry tree bark as raw material. The use of water-powered or animal-powered mills for preparing the pulp helped in transforming paper-making into an industry. The Muslims also introduced the use of trip hammers. The producers in Baghdad and Syria became the main suppliers of paper to Europe. Paper became cheaper and of better quality. The Islamic culture in the Middle Ages, which originally had higher literacy rates, certainly in comparison to Europe, was becoming a leader in sophisticated book production processes, flourishing book markets and rich libraries. All this resulted in a dramatic increase in the availability of books and their accessibility to various segments of the population.

The adoption and industrialization of paper-making is the opposite of the Ottoman Empire’s refusal to embrace Gutenberg’s printing press revolution. It requires another post, but until the eighteenth century, the Turks allowed only non-Muslims, especially Jews, to print. Two revolutions: paper was adopted and the printing press was rejected, both extreme examples of how technology affects culture and society and how seemingly technological decisions can change society.

We know quite a lot about libraries in the Muslim world. The first of which is the House of Wisdom ((بيت الحكمة‎;) founded by Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad and the House of Knowledge ((دار العلم) established by Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, sixth Fatimid Caliph in Cairo. The two libraries were centers of Islamic learning of the Qur’an and Hadith, philosophy and astronomy. The Fatimid historian Al-Musabbihi wrote:

into this house, they brought all the books that [the Caliph] ordered to be brought there, that is, all the manuscripts in all the domains of science and culture, to an extent to which they had never been brought together for a prince. He allowed access to all this to people from all walks of life, whether they wanted to read books or dip into them… He granted substantial salaries to all those who were appointed by him there to do service, jurists and others… He also donated what people need: ink, writing reeds, paper, and inkstands”.

Figure 4 Scholars in the Library in Baghdad, illustration by Al-Wasiti (1237)

There are fantastic stories about the size and richness of these libraries. For example, it is said that during the Mongol siege of Baghdad in 1258 AD, the House of Wisdom was destroyed. The books were thrown into the Tigris River in such quantities that the river was black with the ink. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi rescued about 400,000 manuscripts which he took to Maragheh before the siege. The closest I came to Al-Jazari’s library was a short remark in the diaries of Carl Süssheim. He was an Islamic historian and orientalist. In his diaries, he tells a story about Emiri Efendi who sold him precious manuscripts. According to Emiri Efendi, Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty who defeated the Crusaders at the decisive Battle of Karney Hattin, “scattered the library in Diyarbakir which contained millions of volumes”. I could not find any other reference to support this. All this information makes manuscripts more accessible than I originally thought, but I still wonder what al-Jazari’s library looked like.

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