Al-Jazari and Versailles Fountains


There are six different fountains in The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. This seems somewhat excessive. I suggested in a previous post that this can be explained by the importance of gardens in Islam. However there is another option; Throughout history, rulers asked their engineers and artists to create tangible displays of their power and wealth to impressed their allies and intimidate enemies. The Versailles fountains is an extraordinary example of ignoring cost and engineering complexity to demonstrate power and control. I will elaborate below.

Versailles Fountains, unknown photographer, Wikipedia Commons

The six Fountains of al-Jazari- How do they work?

Combined Drawing, Six Fountains, Topkapi manuscript, 1206

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. I wrote about the first fountain here (in Hebrew). The second fountain has an identical mechanism. The only addition is an extra delivery pipe, so when one fountain is producing a single jet the other fountain is throwing six arcs, and after an hour they switch, and the fountain that was producing a single jet is throwing six arcs and vice versa. The other fountains have a different mechanism, producing different water jets and have different timings. However, there is a lot in common:

  1. All fountains operate by the force of gravity. A house was built at some distance from the fountain and water were raised to a sufficient height to provide the jets. One of al-Jazari pumps, from category V, was probably used for this purpose. Raising the water and their transport are not included in the drawings.
  2. All fountains include a change in the water flow direction. In five out of six this is accomplished using a pipe that could tilt. This is a drawing from the book, and I added labels for clarity.

    Tilting pipe, First Fountain, Topkapi manuscript, 1206

    The water flows into the bowl welded to the transverse pipe that can be tilted (tilting pipe). The pipe is slightly more heavy on the side of tank A, and the water respectively flows into water tank A and water flows from the two right openings. Most of the water ran from the main opening to the right tank. The smaller opening has an onyx mouthpiece and will fill the tipping bucket slowly. At the right time, the tipping bucket would tip and push the tilting pipe upward, shifting the flow to tank B.

  3. All the fountains of al-Jazari had a time-based control system. Today It’s trivial to control the fountain with a microcontroller and computational power, or timing requirements are simple engineering task in comparison to any mobile phone. In the twelve century, it was a significant engineering challenge, and al-Jazari offers a variety of solutions. I have explained already the tipping buckets in the first two fountains. Fountain three and four utilize floats for the control mechanism:When the pipe is tilted to the right, the water will flow into tank A. The plug is closed so the flow to the fountain head is blocked and the tank will fill. The float is limited to the corner but it free to move up and down and will rise with the rising water. After fifteen minutes the float will lift the pipe extension, and the pipe will tilt to the left. The swing of the pipe will pull plug A’ opening the water path to the fountain head. At the same time, water will begin to flow to tank B, and the plug will seal the water flow from tank B.
  4. All six fountains of al-Jazari end with two concentric pipes and different end units. In the post about the first fountain I showed how al-Jazari generated a single jet upward, followed by six jets in a shape of arcs but there are many more options:

    Drawing of an alternative end unit. The fourth fountain, Topkapi manuscript, 1206 with my labels

The water flows in the inner pipe that is connected to tank A. The water shoots out from the inner pipe with force into the shield and descends from its perimeter like a “tent”. When the water switch to tank B, it will flow in the outer pipe generating six (in the drawing you see only two) arcs.

The Power of the ruler and the amazing story of the fountains of Versailles

I hope that my summary of the fountains shows how much thought and effort went into fountains’ engineering by al-Jazari like the Banu Musa before him. In a post (in Hebrew) about the controversy with the Banu Musa, I assumed that al-Jazari deep interest in fountains is related to the importance of gardens in Islam. However, there is another option, after all, grandiose fountains are not limited to medieval Muslim engineers.

Louis XIV built Versailles (Château de Versailles), one of the greatest achievements in French 17th century art and the emergence of the Rococo style, not only as a place of residence for the Royal family but as a part of an elaborate plan to centralize the French government and form absolute monarchy. To accomplish this, he placed the palace outside Paris, forcing the nobles to spend time at Versailles, becoming his captive guests. He has spent ridiculous sums of money in design, with gold trim and built the gardens of Versailles with many fountains. Some claim that the central political structure in France today is the result of his actions. Either way, Versailles became a source of envy and admiration from other Royal houses, and Louis XIV was the most powerful King in Europe. The story of Versailles fountains is less known.

The water challenge appeared began as more and more fountains were added. Originally water was pumped into the gardens from ponds near the château. However, there was never enough water to keep all the fountains running at the same time. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French Minister of Finances and notable politician, put aside the kingdom business and came up with a system by which the people who maintained the fountains would signal each other with whistles upon the approach of the king so the fountains on the route of the king will be functioning… The most ambitious project was to bring water from the river Seine. The pump was called  “Marly Machine” (machine de Marly)

Nicolas de Fer, 1720, Marly Machine

Pump power was provided by 14 water wheels, each 12 meters in diameter, driving a total of 257 pumps. The most remarkable aspect of this array was that the wheels not only drove directly connected piston pumps but also transmitted power 650 meters up a hill from there, the water was distributed by an aqueduct and pipes.

.Overstating the size of this project is impossible. It could happen only in a courtyard entirely isolated from the realities of life of the people.  A staggering workforce of 1800 employees for seven years was needed to construct the machine, more than 100,000 tons of wood, 17,000 tons of iron and 800 tons of lead.

This text, like other texts on fountains, tends to use numbers to praise and glorify the fountain. The little Prince thought it was a problem of Grown-ups :

“Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: ‘What does his voice sound like?’ ‘What games does he like best?’ ‘Does he collect butterflies?’ They ask: ‘How old is he?’ ‘How many brothers does he have?’ ‘How much does he weigh?’ ‘How much money does he have?’ Only then do they think they know him. If you tell grown-ups, ‘I saw a beautiful red brick house, with geraniums at the windows and doves at the roof…,’ they won’t be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them, ‘I saw a house worth a thousand francs.’ Then they exclaim, ‘What a pretty house! “

I think fountains draw out of us more “numbers” than most things. If you are like the Little Prince and numbers are not your cup of tea, you might still like to know that the amount of water delivered to Versailles was larger than the water consumption of Paris as a whole!  The machine suffered (of course) from frequent breakdowns, required a large permanent team of technicians and engineers to maintain her, but still survived the French Revolution and worked 133 (!)  years until 1817, the year of the invention of the bicycle. I haven’t found any evidence that Louis XIV, the Sun King ever saw all this as excessive or a waste. On the contrary, he showed it proudly to his guests, including the Tsar Peter the great, who was so excited, that he built the Peterhof Palace and gardens, near the Gulf of Finland, with Versailles as a model with the largest fountain complex in the world and called one of the building after Marly

This is not the end of extravagant fountains. The following is a quote from the website of the Dubai fountains and is also excelling in using numbers. Before anything else, this is a tourist site, but behind the words, you can still hear the fountain as  a symbol of power and control:

“The Dubai Fountain is the world’s tallest performing fountain.

At over 900 ft in length – equivalent to over two football pitches – The Dubai Fountain is situated on the 30-acre Burj Lake and performs to a selection of international melodies.

The fountain has a unique design comprising five circles of varying sizes and two arcs and features powerful water nozzles that shoot water up to impressive heights equivalent to that of a 50-story building…..The fountain performs to a range of different songs from classical to contemporary Arabic and world music. When operational, the fountain has over 22,000 gallons of water in the air at any given moment.