A new online portal created by the British Library and Qatar Foundation features 25,000 pages of medieval Arabic manuscripts centered on the history of science. The recently launched Qatar Digital Library includes British Library materials not previously digitized, along with thousands of pages related to culture of the Gulf region. Among the science texts are some that reveal the incredible history of water clocks, one of the earliest timekeeping technology.
The form of the water clock (binkām) started simply enough, but as the diagrams from one 16th-century work show, things got incredibly elaborate over the centuries. Attributed to the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes, the Kitāb Arshimīdas fī al-binkāmāt written in Arabic, Farsi, and Persian is more likely a compilation of previous work from Greece, Persia, and other Arabic and Byzantine sources. The water clocks combined hydraulics, gears, automata, and living animals in mechanisms like pipes fueling the signs of the zodiac and birds chirping on the hour as snakes emerge from indentations.
Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator at the British Library, writes on the Qatar Digital Library site: “Although the clocks described in these books may seem over the top by today’s standards, they were the most accurate time-keeping devices known before the first pendulum clocks were built in the seventeenth century by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629–95).”
The best-known water clock is undoubtedly al-Jazari’s elephant. The medieval design had a pachyderm carrying a tower of mechanisms, including a bowl that gradually filled with water that triggered a ball landing in a serpent’s mouth, which in turn caused a mahout to bang a drum on the half hour. While it’s an astounding work of elephant engineering — you can even find a detailed reproduction in a mall in Dubai — it indicates the greater innovations in mechanical design happening in the Arab world during the medieval period, as well as the interchange of ideas across cultures. The animals adorning the pneumatic contraption include dragons from China and a phoenix from Egypt, with al-Jazari, based in present-day Iraq, absorbing the iconography into one device. As Professor Salim Al-Hassani told the Telegraph on the occasion of a 20-foot replica exhibited at the Science Museum London in 2010, it “gives physical form to the concept of multiculturalism” and “embodies cultural and scientific convergence of civilizations.”
Beyond wondrous water clocks, the Qatar Digital Library also features intriguing documents like alchemical treatises from the 11th–12th centuries, astrolabe diagrams, mathematics texts, astronomical charts, and historic mapping from the 9th to 19th centuries. Below are more illustrations from the 16th-century water clock manuscript, including a robotic executioner on horseback, a bird that drops cymbals as a man’s eyes change color each hour, and two human automata who rise and fall while pointing at the time.
View more medieval Arabic scientific documents and other historic manuscripts at the Qatar Digital Library.