A kinetic energy-powered robotic “elephant clock” designed in the 13th century by Al-Jazari, the Muslim “father of robotics,” now serves as a centerpiece of the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai. According to Atlas Obscura, the robotic clock was commissioned for the 2005 opening of the enormous 3.5-million-square-foot mall. The design is based on drawings and instructions from Al-Jazari’s 1206 AD Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, a manuscript describing 50 machines such as animal and humanoid automata, automatic gates and doors, as well as clocks.
The clock’s components include a castle sitting on top of an elephant, a bird, a serpent, and three humanoid automata. The various pieces move in a regular rhythm, and on the half-hour the bird chirps and one of the automata strikes a cymbal.
Salim Al-Hassani, emeritus professor at the University of Manchester (U.K.), writes that the clock incorporates “several mechanisms that are presently used in modern engineering, such as automata, flow regulators, and a closed-loop system.” The clock is driven by gravitational force. Periodically, a metal ball drops out of a magazine at the top of the device. Triggered by the metal ball, a bowl inside the elephant slowly sinks into a bucket as it fills with water. As this float descends, it powers the clock’s mechanisms and time-signals. At the end of the cycle, the bowl empties and returns to the top to repeat the process. The clock will keep running as long as there are still metal balls in the magazine. You can watch an animation of Al-Jazari’s elephant clock in this YouTube video.
Al-Hassani says recent research establishes that “the scientists and engineers of the classical age of Islamic civilization made substantial contributions to developments in engineering and that some of their accomplishments were passed on to the Europeans through Spain and Italy and the Crusades.” These accomplishments, he says, are not well known because, even when designs were recorded, the manuscripts often did not survive into modern times.
Al-Jazari was a craftsman and engineer in the service of a ruling family in southern Turkey during the 12th century. His recorded designs are sometimes vague, says Al-Hassani, but “his main virtues were the ability to carefully manufacture and assemble components, and to devise real improvements on the work of his predecessors.”
Photo and drawing courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.