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The invention of the clock

Top 7 ingenious Clocks from Muslim Civilisation that defied the Middle Ages

1001 Inventions reveals 7 marvellous mechanical and water-powered clocks from early Muslim Civilisation. These sophisticated devices defied the Middle Ages.

Clocks and timekeeping were one of the most significant developments of Muslim civilisation. Scholars, inventors and craftsmen made innovative automata, carried out detailed mathematical analysis, constructed intricate clocks and attempted to master automatic control as they created and expanded upon inventions to mark and measure time. Here are seven key examples.

Let the countdown begin!

Al-Jazari’s Castle Clock
12th century

Manuscript view of the castle clock (Left) and computer assisted reconstruction (Right) © 1001 Inventions

The first machine described by Al-Jazari in his famous treatise of mechanics Al-Jami‘ bayn al-‘ilm wa 'l-‘amal al-nafi‘ fi sina‘at al-hiyal ('A Compendium on the Theory and Useful Practice of the Mechanical Arts') is a monumental water clock known as the Castle Clock.

The castle water clock is one of the grandest clocks mentioned in Al-Jazari's book. Details of its construction and operation are described in ten sections of the first chapter of Category I of the treatise.

The clock, with its series of mechanical routines that ran throughout the day, would have been very pleasing to watch and listen to. During daylight hours, an observer would have seen the Sun's disc on the eastern horizon about to rise, the Moon would not be seen at all and six zodiac signs would be visible, while the first point of the constellation Libra was about to set.

The crescent Moon would travel steadily from left to right on the frieze. When between two doors, the upper door would open to reveal a figure of a man, while the lower door flipped round to reveal a different colour. This occured as each solar hour of sunlight has passed. Soon after this happens, the two falcons would tilt forward and spread their wings, and a ball would drop out of their beaks and into the vase. The observer would hear a cymbal-like sound, and both falcons would lean back to their original position and close their wings...

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The Ummayad Clock by Ridhwan al-Sa'ati
13th century

Dome of the clocks in the courtyard of the of Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. © Bernard Gagnon (31 March 2010)

Originally built in the famous Umayyad mosque in Damacus more than 800 years ago, this clock was built by Ridhwan al-Sa'ati. This impressive mechanical clock displayed the time numerically, and included two falcons that would automatically throw a copper ball into a vase to mark the passing of an hour. At night, a lamp would be lit to indicate the hour by shining through a turning disc.

The general plan of the Umayyad mosque water clock as drafted by Ridhwan al-Sa'ati in his original manuscript.

According to descriptions by Ibn Jubayr, the clock had both an upper level and a lower section.

The lower section housed the engine that generated the movements and transmitted them by ropes and pulleys to the upper part. The engine worked by means of a float in a water tank (bankan). Upon draining the water from the tank, through an orifice at the bottom, the float moved down under the force of gravity, pulling a rope over a pulley which caused the movement of all the other parts. The float movement was controlled by the speed with which the water surface moved down in itself regulated by a control valve attached to the orifice.

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Taqi al-Din’s Clock
16th century

In the middle part of this famous manuscrtipt of an Istanbul observatory (left) is a clock placed on a table that is believed to be Taqi al-Din's. Computer animated rendering of the workings of Taqī al-Dīn's observational clock is shown on the right. © 1001 Inventions

In his book 'The Brightest Stars for the Construction of Mechanical Clocks' (Al-Kawakib al-durriyya fi wadh' al-bankamat al-dawriyya), Taqi al-Din Ibn Ma'ruf analyses the four main types of time keeping devices known in the 16th century: watches, domestic clocks, astronomical clocks and tower clocks. Such machines represent the earliest mechanical computers.

Before the 16th century, clocks were considered too inaccurate for measuring celestial movements. Where Ptolemy failed to succeed in, Taqī al-Dīn planned to build an astronomical clock that would measure time with great regularity in fulfillment of the wish of the Sultan at the time.

Using mathematics, he designed three dials which showed the hours, degrees and minutes. In his clock, he incorporated the use of several escapements, an alarm, the striking trains that sounded at every hour, the visual relationship between the sun and the moon, the different phases of the moon, the devices that indicated the time for prayers and the dials that showed the first day of the Gregorian months.

Taqī al-Dīn's work on mechanical clocks is of important significance in light of transmission of knowledge between cultures and advancement of technology within the Middle East in the middle of the 16th century. Many of the devices mentioned in his clock are present in today's clocks from all around the world.

Al-Muradi’s Clock, 'The Book of Secrets'
11th century

Al-Muradi describing the solar clock in his “Book of Secrets” (on the left), 3D computer animated image of solar clock (on the right)

Source: www.1001inventions.com
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