December 5, 2023

In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries there lived a mechanically inclined polymath named Badi’ al-Zaman Abu-‘l-‘Izz Ibn Isma’il Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari, whom we might prefer simply to call Al-Jazari. A resident of Diyar-Bakir in present-day Turkey, he was employed as a court engineer and indeed proved to be the best engineer a Mesopotamian ruler of the time could have hoped for. He produced a variety of working camshafts, crankshafts, pumps, fountains and clocks, not to mention his more ambitious designs, including a series of humanoid automatons designed to handle tasks such as serving drinks and even playing music.

Between the practical and the fanciful are such inventions of Al-Jazar as the “eternal flute”, the diagram of which can be seen on the site of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Involving “two adjacent tanks, each with a plug connected to a chain”, the setup would work when “a pipe on the axis with the bowl is filled with water from the upper right channel and tilted so that the water flows into one tank. The air in the tank is thus pushed through a pipe connected to a glass that plays the flute until the tank is full. Then the tube tilts to fill the second tank with water, causing the second flute to play.” Like a pre-modern Rube Goldberg, Al-Jazari has created mechanical concepts that are better seen than explained, and you’ll find many more illustrated on Flashback.

These works of schematic art are not from Al-Jazari’s own hand, but from an Arabic manuscript produced some three to six centuries after his death. This seems to pay tribute to its popularity Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Deviceswhich itself drew from the ninth century Book of Ingenious Devices written by three Persian brothers known as the Banu Musa. All of these artistic and technical works, and their continued availability in various forms for generations, reflect the serious work of intellectual administration and development across civilizations in the Middle East after the fall of the Roman Empire—a project that greatly benefited from the occasional sui generis imagination like Al-Jazari.

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based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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