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Trick Devices from a Thousand Years Ago

Muhammad ibn Musa ibn Shakir and his brothers Ahmed and Al-Hasan were known as the Banu Musa Brothers.

Stories - Trick Devices from A Thousand Years Ago

Banu Musa Brothers ©1001inventions.com

Banu Musa Brothers were part of the House of Wisdom of Baghdad in the ninth century. As well as being great mathematicians and translators of scientific treatises, they also invented many trick devices. Their Book of Ingenious Devices lists more than a hundred of them.[1] These were the beginnings of mechanical technology.

These 1,200-year-old mechanisms might seem trivial today, yet a number of ideas, techniques, and components in them, according to Donald Hill “were crucial to the development of machine technology; and the influence of fine technology on the industrial revolution was even more important from a technical point of view than other machines.”[2]

The drinking bull

Many of the mechanisms involved water, fake animals, and sounds. For example, the drinking bull made a sound of contentment when it finished, as if its thirst had been satisfied. It did this using a series of filling chambers, floats, vacuums, and plugs. One of the best works to study the devices is a fairly recent publication by Bir.[3]

Stories - Trick Devices from A Thousand Years AgoA drawing explains the Banu Musa brothers’ ninth-century “Drinking Bull” robot
(Source: 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page 52)

The flask with two spouts

One of the Banu Musa brothers’ trick devices was a flask with two spouts. Different coloured liquids were poured into each spout, but when it was time to pour, the “wrong” colour came out of the “wrong” spout. Like the magician who can make orange juice come out of his elbow, the brothers had an even better, and simpler, intricate mechanism up their sleeves.

Stories - Trick Devices from A Thousand Years AgoAn illustration shows the inside of the Banu Musa brothers’ game “Flask with Two Spouts.” The device amazed all those who observed the trick developed by the inventive brothers.
(Source: 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, page 53)

What they had done was to divide the jar into two vertically, with each section totally separate from the other. Liquid came into the right side from the right funnel and into the left side by the left funnel, but it could not leave this way. Instead, another pipe had been inserted for the outflow. Of course, people observing could not see any of this, and although it was simple, the trick still had impact and amazed them.

The brothers’ imagination for fun also moved into designing fountains with changing shapes.

A joke is not a thing but a process, a trick you play on the listener’s mind.You start him off toward a plausible goal, and then by a sudden twist you land him nowhere at all or just where he didn’t expect to go.” Max Eastman, American Writer


[1] Banu Musa, The Book of Ingenious Devices, trans. and annoted by D. R. Hill (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1979); Arabic text, Ahmad Y. al-Hassan, ed. (Aleppo: Institute for the History of Arabic Science, 1981).
[2] D. R. Hill, Islamic Science, op. cit., 122-3, and D. R. Hill, Engineering, op. cit., 784.
[3] A. Bir, The Kitab al-Hiyal of Banu Musa Bin Shakir (Istanbul: IRCICA, 1990).

Get the full story from 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization Reference (4th  Edition) Annotated.

Stories - Trick Devices from A Thousand Years Ago©1001inventions.com

More about Banu Musa and the ‘Science of Tricks’

The Science of Tricks

The Science of Tricks is the old name for Mechanics. Banu Musa excelled at this science and developed various machines and devices. Their aim was to simplify people’s lives by creating useful and practical devices. But they did not miss including an element of magic and fascination to those devices.

The Book of Ingenious Devices

This is one of the most famous of the Banu Musa books. It contains descriptions of 100 mechanical devices with full illustrations of how each device is designed and developed.

Magical Devices

The Banu Musa book is full of magic; temperamental moody jugs, bottles that take different liquids without mixing them, jars that dispense measured quantities of water automatically, oil lamps with non-diminishing oil, fountains that change their form automatically and many more.

The Environmentally Friendly Jar

Banu Musa designed this jar so that a measured quantity of water is dispensed when the tap is open. The jar will then stop dispensing water for a period of time before the water starts to flow again until all the water in the jar is used up. The action of this jar resembles that of a modern sink in a public toilet.

The Haunted Bottle

A uniquely designed bottle with two heads. If water is poured in one and juice in another, the two liquids don’t mix. Then if the liquids are poured out from the bottle, the water comes out of the head in which the juice was poured, and the opposite for the juice – it comes out of the head in which water was poured.

The Moody Jug

This Banu Musa device has a cool trick. It is temperamental; water comes out of it only when the person requiring water appeals to it. Banu Musa used some basic principles of physics in designing this device.

Further reading

Stories - Trick Devices from A Thousand Years AgoStories - Trick Devices from A Thousand Years AgoStories - Trick Devices from A Thousand Years AgoStories - Trick Devices from A Thousand Years Ago

Stories - Trick Devices from A Thousand Years AgoBanu Musa and the Science of Tricks (Children’s Book)
Arabic Version: تحميل وقراءة كتاب بنو موسى وعلم الحيل