Connected Histories

Hydraulic Technology in a Many-Shaped Water Fountain

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Iraqi hydraulic engineers far ahead of their time were active in ninth-century Baghdad. The Banu Musa (sons of Musa) did town planning and designed public works, but they also played key roles in the development of Arabic mathematics, music, astronomy, and engineering They also participated in a project to calculate the earth’s circumference. This excerpt about a water fountain is from Kitab al-Hayal (The Book of Ingenious Devices), a collection of descriptions and diagrams for mechanical devices such as perpetual lamps, mechanical fountains, and water clocks. Beyond their novelty, the Banu Musa’s devices featured innovative engineering components such as valves, gear arrangements, pump systems, and weight-driven mechanisms that are essential to the development of machines. Building upon Greek and Roman engineering, the Banu Musa made their own ingenious additions, and their  ideas and designs were cited in many later scientific works.

In chapter 5 of one of the titles on the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf, The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, Jim Al-Khalili talks about the application of hydraulic technology in the Muslim world of many centuries ago.


A Many-Shaped Water Fountain: Construction of a fountain from which the water shoots up at one time like the shape of a lily-of-the-valley and at one time like a lance. It is worked by the wind as long as it blows, and we can also make it work and alternate by the flow of water. The example of that is that we make a fountain (ht) and divide it by a plate (y) and we set in the plate the pipes (y) that discharge the shield. In the fountain we install a pipe (we) that terminates in the tank (b) and we connect to tank (b) another similar tank (j). From tank (j) we lead out a pipe (dz) that terminates close to the top of the fountain. On the division shared between these two tanks we erect a stanchion (mn) which makes a right angle with the horizon, and we make it rotate on two axles [i.e. bearings] (m,n). On this stanchion we erect splits, which turn stanchion (nm) if the wind blows, like those which people are accustomed to install in windmills. To this stanchion we attach a tank (l), and we make a hole (q) in tank (I). We make the water inflow through pipe (a). It should be clear from what we have made that when the wind blows vaned wheel (k) rotates, and turns stanchion (nm) and tank (I) rotates. Hole (q) is at tank (j) y[say] and water comes out of tank (I) into tank (j) through hole (q), and enters pipe (dz) and the fountain discharges a rod. And if tank (l) rotates and hole (q) comes to tank (b) the water enters pipe (ew) and the fountain discharges a Iily-of-the-valley. And so continuously as long as the wind blows on it. We have made [alternatively] a pipe (a) which discharges on to the vaned wheel so that the fountain also alternates, and works like it worked with the wind. And this is what we wished to explain.


Hill, Donald R., trans. The Book of Ingenious Devices by the Banu Musa bin Shakir. Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1979, pp. 50–51. Image: From Salim T. S. Al-Hassani, “The Self Changing Fountain of Banu Musa bin Shakir,”, Figures and graphics by Jonathan Chang,  © Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC).


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"Muslim Journeys | Item #158: Hydraulic Technology in a Many-Shaped Water Fountain", May 21, 2024


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