The Magic Pitcher, a Walnut and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


Al-Jazari describes a handsome pitcher of beautiful workmanship.  The slave brings it at the end of the meal and pours over a diner’s hands moderately warm water. To the surprised spectators, he serves a second,  miserable diner with water, too hot for bathing and too cold water for a third. Finally, he tilts the pitcher, and no water comes out. To the delight of the company, he continued his round and selects the “winners” who would receive proper bathing and the other who would get the party laugh. We are used getting cold or hot water by will, in the twelve century this was a technology miracle. To the best of my knowledge, this is the earliest Thermos, an insulating storage vessel for cold\hot drinks.

Water Pitcher, variable temperature, 1206 Topkapi manuscript.

How does it work?

The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in heat transfer or patents to insert and take out water can skip those bits. Al-Jazari took a brass pitcher and removed the bottom and welded two parallel plates with a finger wide air gap in-between them.  Al-Jazari wrote that he tried to use a single brass plate as a spacer, but the cold water was heated, and the hot water got cold as expected. The copper is an excellent heat conductor, while the air trapped between the plates is an excellent heat insulator. Donald R. Hill,  the book translator, wrote:

“Although al-Jazari describes these devices at considerable length, the designs show little advance on those described by the Banu Musa [you can read more here] Indeed the latter are in several ways more sophisticated.”

However, to my knowledge, this is the first use of double walls and air insulation, and like a lot of al-Jazari work was obtained by trial and error. The drawings of al-Jazari are usually exceptional, but in this case, he chose a section that makes it more difficult, at least for me, to understand. I attach a contemporary drawing made by Donald R. Hill, The book translator, and annotator, showing two cross section. I added captions.

A drawing made by Donald R. Hill, The book translator, and annotator, showing two cross section of the pitcher.

On the right side, we look at the pitcher, perpendicular to both the copper plates dividing it into two tanks; one for hot water and one for cold water. The distance between the plates was enlarged for clarity. In reality, it was “a finger” about 2 inches. In the upper third of the pitcher, two funnels were installed, leading the hot water to its tank and the cold water to its half of the pitcher. To fill the pitcher, al-Jazari used a deflector on an axle. You can see it in both sections. The plate had a heavier side, towards the cold water so that one would fill the cold water first. When the cold water tank was full, the float pushed the deflector plate which tilts toward the hot water tank and enables us to fill the other half. A second buoy (al-Jazari used a walnut) with a gauge marked that this tank was also full. The Pitcher had a hollow handle with two holes for air entry. The holes were connected to two pipes, one leading to the half pitcher with cold water and the other to the half of the hot water.  When the slave leaves the two holes open, air enters to both sides of the pitcher, and mixed water, in a comfortable temperature, comes out of the nozzle. When the slave covers one of the holes, water comes out only from the side of the pitcher that has an air inlet, hot or cold depending on the hole he sealed. If the slave sealed both holes, no water would come out at all.

spirit of silliness

Al –Jazari  wrote:

“It is a pitcher of handsome workmanship with a handle and a spout. The slave brings it on a tray at the end of the meal and places it in front of the diner [al-makhdum -lit. the one being served]. He lifts the pitcher from the tray and pours over the diner’s hands moderately warm water, with which he completes his ritual ablutions (wudu) or the washing of his hands. Then on the hands of the person whom he is putting to the test he pours hot water unbearable to the touch, so he cannot wash his hands. Then on the hands of the person whom he is putting to the test he pours very cold water, unbearable to the touch. Then he tilts the pitcher over [the hands of] the person whom he is putting to the test and nothing comes out of the pitcher. He pours out [warm water] to whomsoever he wishes in the company, and refuses it to whomsoever he wishes.”

This description fits better the court jester than a slave servant. Assuming he survived the night, it is also a testimony about a folly in the court in Diyarbakır. Court jester was a medieval profession responsible for fun and entertainment in the courts. Most of us know the Western version with colorful clown clothes, jester hat and a wand. But there are also court jesters in the Islamist courts. A Persian version called the DALQAK is somewhat similar, In the book  “Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World” there is a list of the jesters in the Abbasid Caliphate. The most famous one Abū Nuwās who was a poet and a jester in the court of Harun al-Rashid and appears several times in The Book of “One Thousand and One Nights.”

Jesters, musicians, and dancers in a Turkish miniature, Topkapi Palace

The role of the Court fool in medieval times was to speak honestly, sometimes even mocking the King or his noblemen without suffering the consequences. For example in the Book “Of Fools at Court “ by Clemens Amelunxen when a powerful nobleman complained that a fool was walking on his right, the jester hopped over to the left and answered in sarcasm: “well, I don’t mind a fool walking on my right!”. It is possible that the pitcher stunt was part of the leeway that was possible for the court fool. Either way, this is a little surprising glimpse to the court culture of the Artuqid.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I read the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”  by Robert m. Pirsig, few years before I had my own BSA Motorcycle that needed everything I know about bike maintenance and challenged the mechanics in Chlenov street garage when I was not sufficient. I found this book in a used Bookstore and even if I did not immerse in the roots of the debate between Sophists and Socrates, I was deeply moved by the book and three or four stories are part of me ever since.

Robert m. Pirsig

The book is the story of a journey of Pirsig and his son on a motorcycle across the United States. This is partially autobiographical, weaving the journey in the United States back roads with a complicated internal search (he underwent a mental breakdown and hospitalization) and deep philosophical discussions.

Pirsig and his son ride with his close friends John and Sylvia. They have an expensive BMW motorcycle and John, like most of us, want to enjoy driving it without getting into maintenance and technological problems.  The handlebars of John’s BMA started slipping, and Pirsig is offering to shim them with a can of beer. He writes:

“I thought this was pretty clever myself. Save him a trip to God knows where to get shim stock. Save him time. Save him money. But to my surprise, he didn’t see the cleverness of this at all…. As far as I know, those handlebars are still loose. And I believe now that he was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can!….What emerged in vague form at first and then in sharper outline was the explanation that…I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was… Who likes to think of a beautiful precision machine fixed with an old hunk of junk?”

Should you ask how this story is connected to al-Jazari?  Without any discussions or explanations, he used a Walnut as a buoy. To me, this is identical to using a beer can as a shim, i.e., looking at things in terms of the underlying form. I would like to finish in a quote from Pirsig on the essence and form. If I replaced steel with copper, Al-Jazari (in my opinion) would agree with every word:

” I’ve noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this—that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. They associate metal with given shapes—pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts—all of them fixed and inviolable, and think of it as primarily physical. But a person who does machining or foundry work or forger work or welding sees “steel” as having no shape at all. Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not.”

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