Building the Elephant Clock in Lego


The elephant clock is by far the most popular of all the works by al-Jazari. There have been several modern reconstructions, multiple animations, and it has its own Wikipedia entry, and more. In the previous post, I tried to explain why millions of viewers in the mall in Dubai or the “1001 inventions” were captivated by its magic. The current post is different from anything I’ve written so far and is a record of my journey to reconstruct the elephant clock in Lego, including the difficulties and the learning on the way. The elephant is in the initial stages, and I hope to post an update every week. I’d love to hear your suggestion, ideas, or advice you may have for me.

Elephant clock, Topkapi manuscript, 1206.

Why build?

When I started this journey, I was working at the Davidson Institute of science education. I proposed to Prof. Haim Harari, founding Chairman of Davidson Institute and former President of the Weizmann Institute of science, to build al-Jazari fifty machines in the “Science Garden”, an open-air museum in Weizmann Institute. Haim refused and told me that the Science Garden was rooted in the 17th-century Newtonian physics and he would like to bring it into the 21st century. Instead, my proposal would take us back to the 12th century… This blog is my alternative exhibition.

Beyond the magic of al-Jazari machines and their value to the history of technology, It is important in undermining stereotypes about Islam that exist both in the Jewish and Arabic population in Israel. Arab Labor ( “AVODA ARAVIT”) is a racial slur that is widely used long before the amusing sitcom written by Sayed Kashua. The slur indicates low quality work. On the other hand, Arab society perceives itself as debilitated and with little contribution to the world of science. Arab students come to Weizmann Institute feeling this is the “temple of science” where they do not belong. The wonderful machines of al-Jazari emphasize the scientific achievements of the Islam golden age, which is not taught at schools at all, and offer a different perspective to both Jews and Arabs.

Previous posts included animations. To me, there is no replacement for actually building the machine. The difficulties on the road and resulting learning are priceless.

Why Lego?

Some reconstructions of al-Jazari were made, including the Elephant Clock. These are pictures of three of reconstructions:

Three reconstructions of the Elephant Clock, left Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai, in the middle Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, right the Istanbul Museum of The History of Science & Technology in Islam.

I have a lot of respect and appreciation for the restorers. Their Elephant clock is possibly more similar to the original than I am assuming. Somehow their beautiful work can’t recreate the beauty of the illustrations in the book and in the process of transferring the 2D illustration to a 3D reconstruction some of the magic is lost. I think they are too realistic. The elephant is a “real” elephant and the canopy is beautiful and very dignified. There is no room left for our imagination. Also, the Elephant Clock is static in Istanbul as well as in the 1001 inventions exhibition, more like a statue demonstrating the beauty of the design rather than a working water clock. In Dubai, I think, the Elephant Clock is powered by electric motors. This reduces the experience, at least in my eyes. The reconstruction should rely on 12-century technology and the ability of al-Jazari to perform complex control scheme before we had electronics and controllers. The magic of al-Jazari is contemporary (strange but true).

I have no reason to assume that I know something the restores did not know. The move to LEGO simplifies the aesthetic choices and offers playfulness and sense of contemporary at the same time. No LEGO work is a part of the Turkish tradition of miniature art. However, Lego is free to correspond with this art. Lego has its own design language, and even adults works in Lego and Hyper-technology Lego works are fun and playful, also this is a great excuse for me to build in Lego…

Previous al-Jazari machines in Lego

I know only one of al-Jazari machine made in LEGO. Interestingly enough, it is the Elephant Clock. You can see it here:

I Think the design is charming and the use of LEGO is both clever and quite sophisticated. There’s breathing space in the Lego elephant, and I like the human figures, which are an entertaining use of LEGO components. But although the design follows al-Jazari, its operation is based on the “smart brick” (a programmable, lego controller which serves as the brain of LEGO robots) and electric motors. This, in my mind, defies the point. Or at least the challenge I am hoping to meet: reconstruct, and on the way test and learn,al-Jazari engineering from the 12th century.

Where am I

I made a plan to build a  LEGO elephant, 60  bricks high(about 60 cm). There is no precise measurement in the Book of Knowledge, but this is roughly 2:1 scale in relation to the book. The giant elephant you see in the Dubai restoration, for example, is elephant real size (~3.5 m) rather than the dimensions extracted from the original work. I used Tinker Cad, I found it very user-friendly. I inserted a 3D a model of an Asian elephant and filled it with LEGO bricks:

At this point, I did not insert to the model the other components of the clock, such as the canopy, Mahout, the dragons, etc. l will see as I go if I prefer hands-on experimentation or the use the CAD software.

I ordered 5420 dark gray Lego bricks of various sizes from eight different suppliers, from Denmark to Croatia, from the U.S. to France. Thank you bricklink (Internet market for LEGO) I wouldn’t manage without you. The reason for so many suppliers is simple. No one supplier had so many gray parts. Last week I began to build. It looks like this:

About one-third of my LEGO elephant. The trunk rests in our cereal Bowl. Otherwise, it would fall. I began experimenting with the buoy and the mechanism of the scribe, but this will be in my next post.


2 thoughts on “Building the Elephant Clock in Lego

  1. I can’t believe that you actually started building this… that too with LEGO…. omg… its unbelievable… I commend ur pursuit and ur love for what you are doing…..

    I’m interested to know, if u completed it…. I wanna share this with my kids….

  2. אבי גולן |

    I am glad you enjoyed my lego elephant clock. The structure is done but the mechanics are not. I was hoping to do all the parts (the float, the balancing weight, the pulley etc) with lego technic parts but I do not think this can work. I am back in Tel- aviv university learning Arabic so I have little time for such projects. I hope to do more in The summer. Take care

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