The Perpetual Flute, control, and knowledge sharing


The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices contains four perpetual flutes. On the first one I wrote here, the current post is about the remaining three flutes. Each flute has a single page in the book, in comparison the Elephant Clock which takes twenty-two pages and the Castle Clock who is the champion with forty-one pages! The flutes are much simpler and are based on a single principle of compressing air in water containers to creates the sound. The name “flute” is somewhat misleading, and a whistle might be more appropriate as no fingering or an ability to change the pitch(sound frequency).  Some alteration is achieved through the use of two flutes (two whistles), each with a different sound. The uniqueness of each perpetual flute is the way al-Jazari control switching between the two flutes, and this is the main focus of this post.

Three perpetual flutes, left of the tilting buckets, center balance and on the right floats. Topkapi manuscript, 1206.

Fine technology and control theory

A considerable part of the work of al-Jazari falls in the category of fine technology. The term “fine technology” historically, embraces a whole range of machines for various purposes: water clocks, automata, astronomical instruments (not al-Jazari), and more. Some were intended to measure time or for other scientific needs, some for fun and amusement. What was common to all these devices, is a considerable engineering skill and subtle use of mechanisms and control systems. Control theory deals with dynamic systems (change over time) and how their behavior depends on feedback. This is a very wide field with applications from biology to robotics. The control theory contains heavy mathematics that scares students at the Technion and dates from the 19th century ~ seven hundred years after al-Jazari.

Despite mathematics, the control questions remain identical from the 12th century to the present day. It’s easy to think about air conditioning. When We define the desired temperature, the air conditioner will continue to cool as long as the room is above the set temperature and stop its operation when the room is at the right temperature. Although it sounds simple, the control of the air conditioner requires differential equations, and it is relatively complex. Al-Jazari had no electronics or detectors, but the same exact task. There is no difference between activating and stopping the air conditioner and activating and stopping the “perpetual flute.” The four perpetual flutes are a comprehensive class, with demonstrations, in the possible control methods for a 12th-century engineer.

How does it work?

The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in tilting pipes and floats can skip those bits. The three flutes are identical in all their components except the control system. All three of the perpetual flutes have a permanent water supply. In all cases, there are two water tanks to which two flutes, or more precisely whistles, are attached. All the water tank are being emptied using a siphon. There’s an explanation of a siphon here. It almost seems like al-Jazari has prepared a lesson on control systems, so he made sure that all other elements are identical. In all three flutes, the water flows into a bowl welded to a pipe or a tilting apparatus. The pipe is slightly heavier on the right side, and the water flows towards tank B and fills it. The air that was in the tank is compressed out through flute B, which makes a whistling sound. When the tank is full, the control system will transfer the flow of water to tank A, and the siphon will empty tank B. This process repeats itself as long as the water flows.

  1. Perpetual Flute with tipping buckets. We have met the tipping buckets several times, for example, in “The fountain that changes its shape” or “The automaton of a standing slave holding a Fish and A Goblet”. The tipping bucket (in red) is balanced, as you see in the drawing. When it is full, according to the sketch it will happen at any minute, the weight of the water at the front-end is heavy enough to make the tipping bucket swing, and the rod (marked) will push the bowl upward so it would tilt to the left and water would fill the other tank
  2. Perpetual flute with balance controlThe tilting pipe has two openings. The main opening fills Tank, A as can be seen in the drawing below. The secondary opening is smaller, and the water flows diagonally to the balance pan. This is a classical scale, and the weight of water in a bowl will pull the tilting pipe in its direction. When Tank B would be full, the weight of the water would be enough to turn the tilting pipe to start filling tank A.  to fill the container in. Pay attention to the dish attached to the bowl and make it empty its waters.

  1. Perpetual flute with buoys

Each of the tanks has a buoy chamber. When the water rises in the buoy rises with them, and the rod attached to it will cause the tilting pipe to reverse the direction of the flow of water, and the water flows toward the other tank.

Generosity of Knowledge

At the end of the book, al-Jazari writes:

“In this five chapters [a little strange, there are six categories in the book, I have not seen anyone who discussed this discrepancy?] I have described roots which have many branches and great usefulness. When the descriptions are mastered, from them many more [things] may be created. I have omitted to mention many devices which I invented, for fear of obscurity or ambiguity. In what I have mentioned there is information for him who seeks information and profit for him who has zeal.”

I think that al-Jazari wrote these lines personally to me. Al-Jazari’s address bore fruits. The book in general, and these chapters specifically are written for a future reader who would like to learn and build the machines.

  1. Al-Jazari was ahead of his time in his willingness to share knowledge. The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed is one of the most famous monuments in Moscow. It was built in the sixteen century on orders from Ivan the Terrible. The architect was probably Postnik Yakovlev. According to the legend, Ivan the Terrible blinded Yakovlev so that he could never build anything so beautiful again. It is unclear whether the legend is true, or just a myth, but the desire to preserve knowledge, or ability, is familiar to all of us from the workplace or the university or at least from the literature and movies. Al-Jazari is the opposite. He really went out into the world with a passion to share his knowledge. In this way, he is a magician of engineering, who broke the oath of magicians and brought the hidden knowledge to all mankind.
  2. The world as a whole assumes that “knowledge is money.” It can be seen in the payment we charge for consulting, in the patents industry and more. There is a secondary alternative stream in which people and companies are willing to share free knowledge for their enjoyment and joy of sharing. The open-source movement, the makers, centers in the community or Wikipedia are just a few examples. How to maintain this, what is the model of existence is a complex question that did not bother al-Jazari, an engineer in Saleh Nasser al-Din’s Artuqid Court.
  3. I do not know about the attempts of building machines from the book in seven hundred years since his writing, but quite many attempts to realize al-Jazari’s vision in the 20th century and the 21st centuries. You can read about restorations here. In all cases, the mechanisms, the machines worked wonderfully. I am building the elephant clock from Legos [Hebrew] these days and hope that I will continue this tradition.


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