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Facts About the Elephant Clock Invented by Al-Jazari That You May Not Know

Eman is a writer and an engineer. She writes about ancient inventions and many other topics.

Elephant Clock

Elephant clock of al-Jazari, from a MS copy of his treatise The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Device copied in Syria in 1315 by Farkh ibn ‘Abd al-Latif. © The Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Elephant clock of al-Jazari, from a MS copy of his treatise The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Device copied in Syria in 1315 by Farkh ibn ‘Abd al-Latif. © The Metropolitan Museum, New York.

At the end of the twelfth century, about a thousand years ago, Al-Jazari invented a complicated clock, using forms and signs that expressed the diversity of cultures as well as the global nature of Islam, when the Islamic world was stretching from Spain to Central Asia at that time.

Who Was Al-Jazari?

Al-Jazari was the most prominent mechanical engineer of his time and a pioneer of applied arts as well. His full name was Badi Al-Zaman Abu Al-Ezz Ibn Ismail Ibn Al-Razzaz Al-Jazari. He lived in Diyarbakir, Turkey, during the sixth century AH (late twelfth century - early thirteenth century CE).

He was called Al-Jazari after the place of his born, Al-Jazira, the area locating between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia. He served the Artuqid kings of Diyar-Bakir for several decades (570-597 AH/1174-1200 CE) as a mechanical engineer. In 1206 AD, he completed a distinguished book on engineering. That book was a compendium of theoretical and practical mechanics.

This treatise is the most elaborate of its kind and may be considered the climax of this line of Muslim achievement.

— Introduction to the History of Science, 1927, vol. 2, p. 510, George Sarton

Al-Jazari and “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices” from BBC’s Dick and Dom’s “Absolute Genius”.

Al-Jazari and “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices” from BBC’s Dick and Dom’s “Absolute Genius”.

In 1974, Donald R. Hill (the British charter engineer and historian of Islamic technology) translated Al-Jazari's book into English.

Al-Jazari described fifty mechanical devices in six different categories, including water clocks, handwashing device (wudhu’ device) and water-lifting machines, etc.

After the World of Islam Festival held in the United Kingdom in 1976, Al-Jazari was honored when the London Science Museum showed a successfully reconstructed working model of his Water Clock.

The Mechanism of the Elephant Clock

  • Time mechanism: The perforated bowl inside the elephant controls the mechanism of the clock.
  • Phoenix Bird: It rotates, accompanied by the phoenix sound every half hour.
  • Castle or tower: There are thirty balls that launch a chain of events.
  • Sultan's robot (ruler): Tilts and moves his arms to reveal a hawk.
  • Falcon: A ball starts from the castle and moves in the back of the head of the falcon, then comes out from its beak.
  • Chinese Dragon: Catch the ball from the falcon and bend towards the elephant.
  • Writer: A robot that acts the role of minutes in the clock and spins within half an hour before returning to its previous position.
  • Elephant Driver: A robot moves his arms when the ball falls from the dragon to the vase. This latest movement indicates the end of the sequence of events.
  • The sundial: The clock face, which indicates the number of hours that have passed.

Animation of Al-Jazari's Elephant Clock (1001 Inventions)

The Genius of Al-Jazari

In the manufacture of the clock, Al-Jazari depended on the Greek’s traditional water bases with the early Indian water timing device.

The elephant was a sign for India, the phoenix referred to ancient Egypt, robot men were symbols of the Arab-Islamic civilization, as well as a Persian rug, and serpents in the form of Chinese dragons.

The robot man at the top of the tower is believed to refer to the famous Muslim Leader, Sultan Salahuddin al-Ayyubi, while the other shapes symbolized the diversity of countries and cultures.

It appears from the tools used in the manufacture of the clock the role of various civilizations in the development of machines and also showed the genius of Al-Jazri in making this clock. This is evidenced by the swing of a perforated water bowl (used as a timer) around its edge rather than vertical diving.

The performed bowl floats in a container full of water inside the elephant and when it is gradually filled, slowly sinks and tilts, pulling at the same time three ropes attached to it. The three ropes release mechanisms that control thirty balls that go separately to move the dragons, then the rotating writer robot, finally the levers raise the bowl again and so on.

Al-Jazari's genius appeared in the accuracy of measuring the hole in the center at the base of the bowl, as it took half an hour to fill the bowl with water and sinking.

When the bowl sinks, a tune like a bird's singing comes out and the phoenix spins. The liberated ball makes the sundial located behind the Sultan's robot move from one side to the other to determine the falcon that will release the ball that falls into the mouth of the dragon, which bends down due to the influence of the ball's weight. The dragon is a pulley that rotates on an axle that rests on bearings fixed between each pair of the castle columns. Upon loading with the ball, the dragon head will be lowered down to the vase. Once the ball falls away from the dragon’s mouth, the return mechanism of the dragon is activated and the dragon returns to its original position. Then the writer's robot that points with a stick to the time put the ball in the vase located behind the elephant’s driver who moves his arms, and when the ball falls into the vase, the sound of its collision at the bottom occurs. The circles depicted on the sundial located above the tower indicate the time as well. This complex chain of actions lasts every half hour throughout the day.

The clock was set twice a day, at sunrise and at sunset. This was done by returning the 30 metal balls to their original positions.

The Elephant Clock Mechanism and Modern Engineering

The elephant clock consists of several mechanisms currently used in modern engineerings such as flow regulators, gravitational force, return mechanism, closed-loop systems, and automata.

  • Flow regulators: A small opening in the submersible buoy is carefully calibrated to produce correct flow rates under different heads of water levels. This flow rate determines the time that the clock strikes at an hourly interval. It is set by trial and error methods.
  • Gravitational force: The clock uses the force of gravity as a motive force. The constant sinking of the float acts as the force of gravity, as it pulls the wire that activates the tripping mechanism. In addition, when the ball falls on the dragon's mouth (during operation), it activates the force of gravity, thereby pulling the dragon's head. When the ball leaves the serpent's mouth, it activates the return mechanism.
  • Return Mechanism: The dragon has a return mechanism in the form of a reel. When the return mechanism is activated, the serpent's low head returns to its original position and raises a chain with it. This chain is connected to the float and it raises the submersible buoy and discharges its content, and the submersible buoy is now on the surface again and the cycle repeats.
  • Closed-loop system: The clock will continue working so long as there are metal balls in the magazine.
  • Automata: The clock uses automata, such as hitting the cymbal and the chirping of the bird, which is used to mark the passing of hours.

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of Jazari's work in the history of engineering, and it provides a wide range of instructions for the design, manufacture, and assembly of machines.

— British charter engineer and Islamic technology historian Donald R. Hill (1974)

A modern reproduction of the Elephant Clock in Dubai

Elephant clock that stands 8 meters high in the “India” court at the Ibn Battuta shopping mall in Dubai.

Elephant clock that stands 8 meters high in the “India” court at the Ibn Battuta shopping mall in Dubai.

Modern Reproductions of the Elephant Clock

Many modern reproductions of the elephant clock were created by the1001Inventions Organization. These reproductions appeared as part of educational science presentations of 1001 inventions that have been touring around the world since 2006.

The modern model of the Elephant Clock, Ibn Battuta Mall, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates is three times the original size, designed by the UK Science, Technology and Civilization Foundation. It reaches a height of 8 meters, a length of 4.5 meters, a width of 1.7 meters, and a weight of 7.5 tons. Another modern reproduction of the elephant clock at the Sharjah Museum for Islamic Civilisation, UAE.

A new model that can be found at the Kaust Museum, located at the campus of the University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.

Another reproduction located outside the Clock Museum (Musée d'Horlogerie), Switzerland. A reproduction can be seen in Kasımiye Medrese, Mardin, Turkey.


© 2020 Eman Abdallah Kamel


Eman Abdallah Kamel (author) from Egypt on March 02, 2020:

Linda, you are right. The clock looks very beautiful and interesting. Al-Jazari was an excellent engineer and designer as well. Thanks for reading the article and comment.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 02, 2020:

What a fascinating device! I had never heard of it before I read your article. It looks beautiful and sounds very interesting.

Eman Abdallah Kamel (author) from Egypt on March 02, 2020:

Thanks, Linda for reading the article and comment. I agree with you, it is an amazing mechanical clock made a thousand years ago.

Linda Chechar from Arizona on March 02, 2020:

This is an amazing mechanical clock that was invented ancient centuries ago. I love the incredible mechanisms. Thanks for sharing this wonderful measuring time!

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