Al-Jazari: a pioneering mind
With unrivalled creative genius and erudition, al-Jazari (1126-1206) gave life to the first known humanoid automata, water clocks and piston sets. As an inventor, he revolutionized engineering, hundreds of years before similar endeavours were carried out by like-minded polymaths of the Italian Cinquecento, or of the European Enlightenment period.
His masterpiece still stands as the most extraordinary creation in the history of automata and clockmaking. The so-called Elephant clock appears in the only known written testimony of al-Jazari's work, the Book of knowledge of ingenious mechanical devices. The enduring attraction of this fascinating clock is so compelling that modern replicas of it can be found all around the world: in the United Arab Emirates at the Ibn Battuta Centre of Dubai, in Germany at the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science of Frankfurt, or in Switzerland at the Watch Museum of Le Locle, among many others.
Creative and surprising
As is the case of many other al-Jazari creations, this automaton-clock is an artwork in itself, its technical sophistication only equalled by its refined aesthetics. While most of al-Jazari’s automata serve a precise function, some of his inventions are simply playful and fun, following an aesthetics well-suited to the tradition of elegant hospitality and refined manners that were the fashion of his time.
The elephant automaton is a brilliant illustration of this guiding principle. Made following the ancestral clepsydra system, its mechanical features are set in motion by a steady stream of water. Hours appear at the top of the construction through a perforated arch, each opening filling with a different colour as time takes its course.
This unique automated figure derives its movements from a mechanism hidden inside the elephant. A sinking counterpoise which, once entirely submerged, sets in motion a mechanical sequence releasing a ball from the beak of a falcon, which then falls into the mouth of a dragon, which tilts down under its weight.
Once the dragon has reached its lowest point, it releases the ball into an urn, sounding the half-hour. Each repetition of this sequence colours one of the apertures on the pediment at the top of the tower.