In 2009, Tokyo’s Waseda University built a fedora-sporting flautist robot powered by cranked air. But this is only the most recent attempt at a mechanical, flute-playing musician. In the 9th century, the Banū Mūsā brothers in Baghdad wrote a treatise describing their “instrument which plays by itself.
Cover of ‘Allah’s Automata’ (image courtesy Hatje Cantz) (click to enlarge)
Their innovative machine is described in Allah’s Automata: Artifacts of the Arabic-Islamic Renaissance (800-1200), recently published by Hatje Cantz. The book accompanies an exhibition of the same name, currently on view at the ZKM (Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe) in Germany, that includes a reconstruction of their instrument. While automata had their golden age in Europe from the 16th to 19th centuries — which saw the creation of such devices as the clock of Diana in her chariot that rolled across a table and shot an arrow — in the Islamic world their peak was from the 9th to 13th centuries. The most famous, also reconstructed for Allah’s Automata, is the 12th-century elephant water clock. The shapes of its various hydraulic elements could be interpreted as symbols of the international trade that facilitated its creation by Ismail al-Jazari, including an Indian elephant, Chinese dragons, and an Egyptian phoenix riding above a Muslim scholar who writes the time.