The basin of the Peacock and the magic of automata

Introduction

The basin of the peacock is an automatic basin for the ritual ablution- Wuḍū (وضوء). A servant brings the basin and positions it so that the beak of the peacock is facing the master. The servant pulls a hidden lever in the tail of the peacock, and water begins to flow. Then the left door opens, and mechanical slave emerges holding soap. Toward the end of the washing, the right door opens, and another mechanical slave emerges, this time, holding a towel, to dry the master’s hands. The automata are important to the history of technology. Methods invented to refine automata laid the basis for modern technology, but I hope in this post to talk about the source of the magic of automata.

Basin of the peacock, Topkapi manuscript, 1206

How Does it work?

The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in siphons or automaton mechanism can skip those bits.

The hollow Peacock is made of copper, large enough to contain the water needed for the purification ceremony. The arched neck is a siphon. A siphon is a tube in an inverted ‘U’ shape, which causes a liquid to flow upward, above the surface of a reservoir, with no pump, but powered by the pull of gravity. The siphon will work while the water in the peacock’s body would rise above the bend in the peacock neck. The peacock’s tail, which is spread out, is divided into two volumes. The bottom part is connected to the body of the peacock. The top is separated with a conical plug. This plug is connected by a curved lever which reaches the cover of the tail. At first, the servant fills the water when the plug is open, thus filling the body of the peacock and the lower half of the tail then he pushes the plug. At this stage, the water level is below the bend in the peacock’s, so nothing happens. With the plug in place, he fills the top half of the peacock’s tail and brings the basin to the king. Now the servant pulls the plug and connects all the Peacock parts. The water came down and rise over the bend of the Peacock neck, and the ritual ablution begins.

Al-Jazari and  Donald Hill settled for a side drawing, but my love M. insisted that it’s hard to understand the operation of the automaton without a frontal drawing. So I expanded the drawing:

When pouring water into the basin, the water flows through a hole in the floor into the lower chamber, and the float goes up until it pushes the mechanical slave holding the soap, causing him to move forward and open the left door and thus “offer” the soap to the king. The float doesn’t continue to rise because its movement is limited by the ceiling of the lower chamber. The water continues to rise to the upper chamber, so the second float begins to rise. His rod is shorter and triggers the second mechanical slave just before the water end. When the second slave moves forward, it opens the right door and offers a towel.

 

Automaton  (self-operating machine) magic

Automaton (plural automata) were not invented by al-Jazari. We know of automata in ancient Greece (Greek: αὐτόματον “acting of one’s own will”). The automata were used in temples and as accessories in the Greek theatre.  The first engineering text that I am aware of is by Hero of Alexandria, a mathematician, engineer, and scientist from the 1st century AD. “Automatopoietica” (αυτoματoπoιητικ ‘ ης) usually translated “on making automatons.” It is reasonable to assume that Hero knew of Aristotle’s “Poetics,” the earliest surviving work focusing on literary theory, in which Aristotle examine the principles behind epic poetry, comedy, and mainly tragedy. We can expand (?)  Poetics as the artistic elements which compose any art form and in our case, the art of automata. Today when we say poetic, we mean an emotional, leary style of expression. I don’t know if this was true in Alexandria, the book is a description of machines that perform “magic” with mechanics or pneumatics, such as automatic door opening in the shrine or statues that pours wine.

Al-Jazari developed and perfected the world of automata. He was the first to employ the camshaft as part of his automata, see the Castel Water Clock or the  Musical Boat [in Hebrew]. He also expanded the use of water flow, smart use of gears, buoys and balancing weights built a long list of automatons, some I already covered, and some I would translate from Hebrew in the near future.

The 18th century was the golden age of automatons. Most of them rely on the camshaft quite similar to the work by al-Jazari. It’s hard to choose between the many exotic examples. I can’t ignore the “Digesting Duck”  (Canard Digérateur) built by Jacques de Vaucanson. The Duck was the size of a living duck and was covered in perforated gold-plated copper to allow a view of the inside workings. It moved like a duck, wiggling its beak in the water, quacking, and most famously though, it could eat pellets offered to it, and then poop them. De Vaucanson claimed that duck contained a small “chemical laboratory” capable of breaking down the wheat grain. In the 19th century, it was found that Vaucanson had faked the mechanism, and the Duck’s poop consisted of pre-prepared breadcrumb pellets, dyed green.

An American artist’s (mistaken) drawing of the Digesting Duck.

I particularly like the automaton of Maillardet, also known (by error) as “Maelzel’s Juvenile Artist.” This is an automaton that can draw four different drawings and write in calligraphy three poems which, among other things, revealed the true creator, Maillardet, in contrast to its wrong reference to Maelzel. The full story appears in this video:

It is impossible to ignore that the eighteenth century is the age Romanticism (also known as the Romantic era), an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement originated in Europe. For example in a Hoffman story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” Mr. Drosselmeyer, who is a clockmaker and inventor, made a splendid gift for the children: a clockwork castle with mechanical people moving about. Also Olympia, in Der Sandmann (The Sand-man), the life-size mechanical doll with which Nathanael falls disastrously in love. Nili Mirsky in the epilog to “The Golden Pot and other stories “writes about chronic dualism: In the day a strict Prussian judge and in the night a romantic poet or the tension between the occult world and what is exposed in his stories. I suggest adding the tension between the mechanical doll and living humans.

The methods invented to refine mechanical dolls laid the basis for modern technologies, not only for robotics. For example, Edmund Cartwright patented the power loom in 1784, key development in the industrialization of weaving after a visit to “The Turk,” a mechanical doll who played chess and then proved to be a hoax. The mechanical part was real, but there was a concealed man who computed the chess moves. Cartwright wrote: “it is more difficult to construct a machine that shall weave than one which shall make all the variety of moves required in that complicated game?”. Thomas Edison incorporated the camshaft of al-Jazari or Maillardet with the music box and created the phonograph, the first device that allowed recording of music or voices. In general, there are many more examples of a drift of the technology from the “useless” world of automatons to the “practical” world, but I want to talk about the source of the magic.

The automaton is a mechanical doll who moves around and does things that are reserved only to living beings. I don’t think the automata maker confused themselves with the all-mighty creator. There is no mysticism or black magic in mechanical dolls, but there is small magic or amazement in the gap between the mechanical system and human behavior.  Allegedly this magic should disappear in the modern world. Drawing and writing poems are relatively simple tasks for a LEGO robot, which is only a toy. At MIT-Laboratory researcher investigate energy-efficiency in legged robots and created a mechanical “Cheetah” that goes far beyond any dream of makers in previous centuries. I am the last person who wants to reduce the wonder from the Cheetah but the kids watching the contemporary robot do not have the amazed face of the kids watching  “Maelzel’s Juvenile Artist.”  was the charm preserved? Why? I think magic is different. The observer in the thirteenth century and the eighteenth-century lived-in a world with a lot less technology and understood the world around him in a way that we lost. We live in a world saturated with technology and used to not understand most of it, even if we have a technological education. The cell phone in our hands is a powerful computer. Hundreds of engineers from various disciplines, electrical engineer, material engineers, chemists, and a solid-state physicist were needed to produce the microprocessor alone. I doubt that there is one person in Apple or Samsung that knows all the details of the microprocessor, and this is before we even discuss the touch screen or the antenna. We live (well!) with our lack of understanding and content with using it without knowing “the details.” In the 18th century, and before, the automaton was a demonstration of the strength of technology. It allowed René Descartes, the famous French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist to think (fantasize?) that one day the scientific principles at the base of Humans and animals would be revealed, just like we can understand the mechanism of the automaton. This was a challenge to religion and a song of praise to science and its powers. Not every innocent observer is Descartes, but this is the root of our amazement. When we live in a technological world we don’t understand, the astonishment question is very different. Why be astonished more (or less?) by a robot or a cell phone or a game of virtual reality? The magic of the old mechanical dolls is precisely the fact that we can see the technology does its wonders, you can see the gears fit, and the reader (pushrod) moves over the camshaft. We, the eighteenth-century observer and al-Jazari, are, for one moment, in the same place of admiration.

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  1. Pingback: The only measurement tool in the book and why al-Jazari is the first engineer – The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices

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