The Musical Boat for a Drinking Party


The Musical Boat is the fourth of ten automata (mechanical dolls) and vessels that were designed to amuse guests at drinking parties at the King Court in Diyarbakir. On the boat deck seat the king, his and weapon-bearer, a slave holding a jug and goblet, as if serving drinks. Below there is a group of boon-companions and four slave girls, a flute-player, a harpist and two tambourine-players. The King and his court are static, papier-mâché sculptures. The musicians are made from jointed copper, and their arm can move. Professor Noel Sharkey sees in the unique mechanism al-Jazari designed for the drummer the world’s first programmable robot. More on this topic, below.

The musical boat, Topkapi manuscript, 1206

How does the boat work?

The boat moves gently on the surface of the pool at the Palace. Once every half hour, without any external intervention, a performance begins; The flutist would play the flute, the drummer would beat the tambourine, and the harpist plucks the copper strings. Here is a short mute (unfortunately) video of a model of the musical boat. After approx. Fifty seconds you can see the mechanism in action.


The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in tipping buckets or early camshafts can skip those bits. The diagram below is the original drawing of al-Jazari with my captions:

The slave girls (musicians) are sitting above a water reservoir. The tank empties slowly into the tipping bucket. When the tipping-bucket has filled, after about half an hour, it discharges its water onto the scoops wheel, turning the wheel on its axle. The pegs on the axle rotate as well moving the rods which are connected to the slave-girls’ hands, moving them up and down. This creates the motion of the harpist plucking or the drum beating. The harpist has a three peg system for one hand, and the other hand is operated by one peg only. The rods are an early version of a camshaft and convert the circular motion of the axle to the linear movement of the musicians’ hands. The spacing between them generates different patterns of drumming or harp music. The water flows down into the pipe which is connected to the air vessel, forcing air through the whistle. This is the source of the “flute” sound.

Qiyan – Musician slave girls

The drawings in the facsimile edition were not done by al-Jazari. Donald Hill, The book translator, and annotator, detailed eleven manuscripts all over the world. The earliest copy, now in Topkapi Library (MS 3472) was completed by Muhammad Ibn Yusuf Ibn Uthman alHisenkafi in April 1206 and is the source of a facsimile. When a scribe finished copying a manuscript, a task that lasted weeks or even months, he would add a colophon, brief statement containing information about the publication such as information about the scribe and the manuscript. This is how we know that this copy was completed in 1206, the year al-Jazari died. We can assume that this copy was prepared from the original book, and the drawings are quite similar to the original. This is interesting because of the affinity between the Clothing of the boon- companions and the slave girls. The boon companions and the girls are all wearing qaba, a robe with sleeves, at mid-calf –between the knee and ankle that has a diagonal fastening of one side over the other. The color scheme is also identical. This made me think of them as “male musicians” Although the text is very clear about slave girls

Qiyān (Arabic: قِيان‎, ) was a social class of slave women, trained as entertainers, which existed in the pre-modern Islamic world. Qiyān is often rendered in English as ‘singing slave girls,’ but this translation does not reflect the fact that qiyān were skilled entertainers whose training extended well beyond singing, including composing music and verse, reciting historical or literary anecdotes, calligraphy, or shadow-puppetry and more. Qiyān were important in performing and distributing the works of the composers of the period in the Palaces of Islam from the eighth to the thirteenth century. They received broad education from an early age, including science, philosophy, and art. Beyond being gifted poets, dancers, or musicians, they were supposed to be courtesan with high conversational skills. There’s quite a bit of information about Qiyan in Baghdad, the Abbasid capital. In these years Bagdad was a cosmopolitan city and the center of science, culture, and philosophy. The musical slaves came from different cultural backgrounds. We know of Qiyān from all over the world, from Rome to India. They were bought in for outrageous sums of money, but the slavery is somewhat confusing, and those released remained in palaces in the same role? You can’t compare the tiny principality of the Artuqid with the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, but the presence of the Qiyan in Diyarbakir is another indication of the cultural flourishing in line with the original architecture  [Hebrew] and the initiative to write the ” Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices.”

Musical robot

The word ‘robot’ was first used by Czech writer Karel Čapek in his 1921 play R.U.R -Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word ‘robot’ itself was not new, and come from Slavic language robota, meaning servitude. Oxford dictionary definition, “a machine capable of complex operations automatically, especially with programmable computer” is problematic, if only because my car is capable of a complex series of actions automatically, it has a large number of programmable electronics, and it is not a robot by any definition. In literature and science fiction movies, we use “robot” for an android, a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions.

Čapek’s book was written in 1921, long before Ted Hoff invented the microprocessor. When we talk about ancient robots and the automata al-Jazari built and ask ourselves if they should be considered as the predecessors of robotics, the questions should be two:

  1. Was it possible to program? Or in other words, do they have the ability to do different actions by design?
  2. Do they have autonomy? The ability to decide what to do and how to do it?

The question of “what was the first device that could be programmed?” is more theoretical than practical, but the musical boat is a leading candidate. Professor Noel Sharkey of Sheffield University built a model of a single drummer from the musical boat to illustrate how it can be “programmed.”  Beneath the ‘drummer’ was a rotating shaft with pegs on it. As these pegs rotated they pull on a lever that raised the drummer’s arm and then it dropped to hit the drum. The placement of the pegs entirely controlled the rhythm and timing of the drum beats. The purpose of the model was to demonstrate that one can play different beats using different peg patterns by changing the peg locations and spacing.

Did al-Jazari actually “program” the musical boat? We will never know. He probably used this method during the design to get the rhythm he liked. Whether it was used or not, the musical boat shows the possibility of “programming.” The question of autonomy will have to wait eight centuries until engineers would have sensors and computerized systems.  For those who want to expand, I attach a short (about ten minutes) film from the history channel. It introduces the subject of Robotics and the contribution of al-Jazari and other ancient robots. For some reason, they turned al-Jazari into a Persian?

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