Al-Jazari Water pumps and Patents


Category V deals with water pumps or in the language of al-Jazari “On machines for raising water from pools and shallow wells which are not deep, and from running streams.”

Al-Jazari is a man of few words, and his introductions are quite minimal, but in this chapter, he dives straight to the point. His opening line is: “I have shown the picture of that (machine for lifting water by an animal who turns a lever) after the text of the next chapter”. There is nothing about the current state of things, what were the pumps available in his time, what drove the need for improvements?  Nor any other introductory remark. However, the first two pumps are an improvement and automation of the Shaduf (شادوف) or in Hebrew קילון (kilon). This is a manual device for raising water, known to man for thousands of years. Al-Jazari design includes three improvements: mechanization, significant efficiency improvement and the use of segmented gear. Nowadays an engineer would write at least three different patents. This would lead us to a discussion of patents and al-Jazari.


The Shaduf is a hand-operated device for lifting water. We do not know who or when was it invented, but it was in use in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to irrigate land for thousands of years. Surprisingly enough, it is still used today in India, Egypt, and some other countries

The Shaduf consists of an upright frame on which is suspended a long pole, at one end of this pole hangs a bucket or a ladle. The other end carries a balancing weight which serves as the counterpoise of a lever.

With a relatively small effort the operator lifts the bucket or the ladle and carry water from a body of water (typically, a river or pond) onto the irrigation system. From this point, the water will flow to the crops in the fields due to gravity. The operation of the Shaduf is completely manual, but it’s easier to pull the rope down using the balancing weigh than lift the water. Moreover the Shaduf transport the water to the beginning of the irrigation canal. It is interesting to note that the Shaduf appears in old Hebrew text, The Mishnah “study by repetition” is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions. It was sealed at the beginning of the third century AD. I did not find a translation, so this is my rough translation that does not capture the beauty of the ancient Hebrew:


“משקין בית השלהין במועד ובשביעית, בין ממעיין שיצא כתחילה, בין ממעיין שלא יצא כתחילה; אבל אין משקין לא ממי הגשמים, ולא ממי הקילון.” (משנה: מועד קטן, פרק א)

“Water an irrigated field during the festival and sabbatical, both from a newly-emerging spring and from a spring that did not just emerged. But do not water the field with water from rainwater or Shaduf water.”

Shaduf, a photograph from Eygpt, 2001

How does it work?

The first two water pumps of al-Jazari are relatively simple machines comparing to the complexities of the clocks and automata explained in previous posts. A-Jazri dedicated one page each. I placed the two drawings side by side. The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in segmented gear or runged wheel can skip those bits.

The first two pumps designed by al-Jazari. The left pump has a single ladle. A single page from a dispersed copy, dated to 1315. The right pump includes four ladles. Topkapi copy, 1206.

We shall start with the diagram on the left of the pump that has one ladle. In the top room, a donkey is rotating the main shaft and the toothed wheel connected to it. The later rotates a toothed wheel in 900. Today we would probably use beveled gear for this purpose, but al-Jazari gives no details. My love M. complained that in the drawing you could not see the gears pressed against each other and the segmented gear which I shall explain in the next paragraph are perpendicular to their real direction. All these issues and more are related to the drawing made in the 12th century. In the future, I hope to add animations that will help my current readers to understand the mechanism. On the same axle, there is a segmented gear with the same cogs and spacing. However, only a sector of the circular gear has cogs on the periphery, in this case, a quarter of a circle. This segmented gear fits into a runged wheel which is connected to the axle of the ladle. When the cogs interlock with the stages of the wheel, they rotate the axle, and the ladle lifts about 15 liters of water at a time.  After a quarter of a circle, there are no more cogs, and nothing to prevent the runged wheel to rotate backward dropping the ladle into the water and the process repeats itself. The pump to the right is identical in its mechanism only there are four ladles and four segmented gears. That means that each donkey rotation will result in 60 liters. The efficiency improvement is probably less than 4x because the donkey will be slower because of the heavy load.


This chapter is quite unusual in the book because it deals with the engineering core, improving process efficiency, while most of the chapters are about surprising automata and rotating peacocks. The question of efficiency for most machines of al-Jazari is out of place if not completely from another discipline. The question of efficiency is an essential component in any engineering process. A process is efficient if we increase the amount of work performed while reducing the use of resources (raw materials, labor, fuel, time, etc.) Al-Jazari is an engineer by nature (Hebrew) and when the subject is water pumps he designed a significant efficiency improvement.

Al-Jazari and patents

In our world, the mechanization of the Shaduf justifies a patent, the improved efficiency by approximately 3-4 justifies another patent. There is a question mark about the inventor of the segmented gear. Some claim that segmented gear appeared 1st in the “The Book of Secrets” by Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi other give the invention to al-Jazari. I hope to obtain “The Book of Secrets” and then I’ll be able to formulate my own opinion.  I think that if al-Jazari was aware of this discussion, he was really surprised.

The official history of Patents starts with the Venetian law from 1474:

“Any person in this city who makes any new and ingenious contrivance, not made heretofore in our dominion, shall, as soon as it is perfected so that it can be used and exercised, give notice of the same to our office of Provveditori de Comun [State Judicial Office], it being forbidden up to 10 years for any other person in any territory and place of ours to make a contrivance in the form and resemblance thereof, without the consent and license of the author.”

Although the present patent laws are more complex, the essence practically identical:  The patent system is protecting inventors so that they will have an opportunity to receive proper compensation for their efforts. Why patent law was necessary in Venice in the fifteenth century and was not necessary in Diyarbakir in the twelfth century?

The need originated because of the emerging glass industry. Master Angelo Barovier in mid-fifteenth century invented the method to create clear glass, which was pure like rock crystal called ” cristallo”. This recipe was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Venetian Republic for centuries.

Of course, if another manufacturer would be allowed to copy the recipe with minimal effort,  the willingness to invest in innovation and development will be diminished. Today patents are a major concern in high tech and pharmaceutical industry, but there was a time when mirror production was in the front of technology.

Venetian Goblet from the 16th century. Louvre Museum collection.

The world of al-Jazari was very different. This is not a sophisticated industrial world where multiple manufacturers were competing for everything including know-how and technology. The question of commercialization of knowledge is not relevant. The world of programming evolved differently. In parallel to proprietary knowledge and patent protection, there is the Free and Open Source Software-FOSS. The cornerstone of the movement is promoting cooperation between people, using computers. You can almost say that al-Jazari is precursory of the open source movement only with pumps and automata. This is not my assessment but facts. The following quote is from the book introduction as translated by Donald R. Hill.  The quote is a little long, but speaks for itself about his motivation of sharing his knowledge:

“I am in the service of the king Salih Nasir aI-DIn Abi al-Fath Mahmiid bin Muhammad bin Qara Arslan bin Dawiid ibn Sukman bin Artuq, the king of Diyarbakir, may God preserve him with those whom He chooses to preserve. That is following my service to his father and his brother, God sanctify their souls, before the kingship passed to him – a [total] period of twenty-five years, the first of them year 577. God, may He be exalted, has singled him out with distinctions of intelligence, high-mindedness, justice and probity, so that he surpasses in justice and probity the kings of the present age, and excels the lords of near and far in beneficence and graciousness…. I never began to construct a device of mine without his anticipating

it [i.e., its purpose] by the subtlety of his perception. He is completed by the refinement of his opinion and his wisdom. I was in his presence one day and had brought him something which he had ordered me to make. He looked at me, and he looked at what I had made and thought about it, without my noticing. He guessed what I had been thinking about, and unveiled unerringly what I had concealed.

He said ‘you have made peerless devices, and through strength have brought them forth as works; so do not lose what you have wearied yourself with and have plainly constructed. I wish you to compose for me a book which assembles what you have created separately, and brings together a selection of individual items and pictures’.”