The Musical Boat for a Drinking Party

Introduction

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?

The Drummers’ Clock and Musical Robots

Introduction

The Drummers Clock is a water clock and probably one of the first drum machines and musical robot ancestor. It features five mechanical drummers: two cymbal players, two drummers with a drum slung over their shoulder and a drummer sitting in front of two kettle drums. Despite significant advances in robotics and AI- Artificial Intelligence musical robots fall short in comparison to human musicians, their music lacks subtleties and is “mechanical.” The simplicity of the drum machine in contrast to a robot violinist helps to focus on the real issue. This post is moving between explanations of the drummers’ clock and thoughts on the difficulties in creating a “musical” musical robot.

The Drummers’ Clock, a dispersed copy, 1315

How does it work?

This is a simple version of the Castle clock with fewer mechanisms to display the time, and those that remained are simpler. The large components: Water tank, float, and the flow controller are identical to the Castle clock and the “Time cart” is very similar, a little like a cheap version of a mobile phone. Al-Jazari does not explain them again but refers the reader to the first chapter (the Castle clock). I also turn directly to musicians. Al-Jazari writes:

 “When an hour has passed the musicians (نوبة – nūbah, a musical genre found in the North African, it has its origins in Arabo-Andalusian music.) perform with a clamorous sound which is heard from afar.”

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

The water flows on the scoop wheel once an hour. This is a large clock and every time about eight liters of water flows. It is turning the scoop wheel on its axle so that the pegs move the rod which is connected by a copper chain to the slave-girls’ hands. The pegs are an early version of a camshaft and convert circular motion to linear movement. The number of pegs and the intervals between them create different patterns of drumming. The copper strip goes through the hollow wooden body of the musician and when it is pulled it goes up and later falls to hit the drum. The pegs are organized in a way which is characteristic of the work of al-Jazari, two adjacent pegs, and a third peg apart. The result is two relatively fast beat, and a third after a pause. There are also two trumpet players but they only “decor accessories.” The sound of trumpets is produced separately by the water pouring into an air vessel and compressing the air out through the pipe with a whistle.  Al-Jazari used this in many devices, including the Perpetual Flute.

Robotics and the student’s disappointment

Robotics is an enjoyable and sometimes exciting way to teach and learn science and technology. This is true for excellent students and students with difficulties in mathematics and science. Most of the student gladly take upon themselves robotics problems, research a topic, and build a robot using original thinking and their ideas. I taught robotics in different settings: in elementary school Gavrieli, in middle school Branco Weiss and at the Davidson Institute of science education. In all the years I taught, I found it a creative learning experience. Beyond the programming tools, mechanical engineering, electronics, and sensors, it teaches children to confront and overcome obstacles, builds confidence and self-esteem, and gives inspiration to science and technology. As a part of the introduction, I would present a wide range of robots, including a robot that plays the violin:

In almost every class I taught, students (happy and enthusiastic) were complaining that the robot’s performance is, “mechanical” or “robotic” as a weakness. Violin has a wealth of nuances in the way the violinist produces the violin sound (Timbre). This is the result of many choices such as which string to use, the pressure of the bow, the point of contact, the bowing speed, to use the whole bow, or only partially. All these choices reflect the musical understanding of the violinist and will echo emotionally with the listener. The Musical robot in the movie is programmed so that it “knows” to play the notes, but it has no musical understanding at all the concept of an artistic interpretation is foreign to him. The drum machine is much simpler in comparison to the violin and will facilitate the discussion.

The drummer’s choice includes “merely” the question of the drums selection and the beating template. In terms of the drum machine of al-Jazari, this is the arrangement of the pegs for each drum and possibly changing the length to affect the volume. Al-Jazari made these decisions during “programming” or the design phase, but we can easily think on modern drumming robot with all parameters free to change in real-time. This will allow changing hand techniques, and evolving drum beat patterns but will not progress us even one step toward musical interpretation.

This is a nontrivial challenge for robot builders. Robots in science fiction literature and toward the end of the 20th century are machines that can replicate human action, especially when it is repetitive. When Karel Čapek coined the word “robot” in the play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the idea was to replace humans when the work is tedious and difficult, or even dangerous. Obvious examples are the welding robots in the automotive industry or the Police Bomb Disposal Robot. In recent years, there is a shift in direction, and a lot of research is done on Artificial Intelligence (AI). There are exceptional results in various fields, including robotics stock traders, diagnostic medical robots, and precise surgery robot. What was considered thirty years ago unsurmountable like software playing chess or go (Japanese board game) is a reality. Chess software like Komodo can beat any human grandmaster. The contribution of AI to music (AIM- Artificial Intelligence Music) is more modest and limited, at this time, to conferences and academia and no robot can be matched to a human musician and people are not jamming concerts to listen to musical robots. AIM is a broad field and includes many topics, some of which are relatively simple to understand, Like:

  • Methods to produce music using musical robots
  • Storage and of digital music

Some are more complex, but still approachable:

  • Symbolic representations of music – how to represent music, beyond the note including “human touch” and interaction between musicians.
  • Human-computer interaction-music – how can a computer respond to music, including jazz improvisation.

Some are borderline science fiction:

  • Cognition Computational music-the idea is to try to teach the computer what is needed for music playing or composition. Moreover, to treat this as a process and do the same learning that does a composer/performer.

As someone who likes robots and automatons, maybe like al-Jazari at his time, I’m surprised from the pleasure I get from reading about the difficulties of the AIM community and the human abilities which are so hard to imitate. Despite what I wrote I would like you to see the film below: I don’t know how it was done and what part is human, and what part is AIM but it is certainly fun to watch and listen!

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.