Designing The Magical #2: The Automatic Flute Player of the Banû Mûsâ


You must know, my brother, that the essence of magic and its reality is whatever by which intellects are bewitched, and whatever to which souls surrender through speeches and actions that produce astonishment, submission, attention, hearing, consent, obedience or acceptance.
– from the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’, 10th century CE

Banu musa self-trimming lamp

Self-trimming lamp – Banû Mûsâ

In the Southern corner of a large lamp-lit garden, a group of twelve men form a noisily chattering audience. Are they are here to see a demonstration? Are they here for a performance? In this place, at this time, it is often impossible to tell the difference. They may expect to be both entertained and informed. These are men who are used to having their needs met. What they are not expecting, would never ever expect, is to have their philosophy of knowledge challenged. Their philosophy is the basis of their status, their belief, their wealth but they will soon learn that this philosophy is not as stable as they suppose.

Baghdad 850AD. The House of Wisdom is still the principal center of learning in the world. Its gardens are filled with what we would in our modern world call cutting-edge experiments and near-future engineering wonders. Ingenious devices of shining metal, polished wood, and brightly-painted ceramic shine between trees that are hung with the newly invented self-trimming lamps.

The sound of splashing water fills the air. The fountains are wondrous, alternating jets and sprays, puffing and sloshing with hidden pneumatic chambers and hydraulic pressures, clicking and clanking with delicate valves and carefully balanced switches.

Here is a fountain from which the clear water spurts in the shape of a lily. A gentle clicking sound and the water changes appearance, now it forms the shape of a shield. A soft hiss and it shifts once again into the shape of a spear. Visitors look in vain for a servant who might be operating these astonishing liquid sculptures but the dramatic transformations appear to be happening automatically!

Surrounding the fountains are ceramic vessels that can reveal wonderful secrets. They can be shown to demonstrate the ancient mechanical principles of the Greek engineers Archemedies and Hero, or the newly refined mechanisms of the Banû Mûsâ.

The vessels can also keep their secrets close and baffle the most curious and educated of visitors.

Here is an earthenware pitcher into which liquids of three different colours are poured in succession. A tap is opened and somehow the liquids discharge in the same order in which they were poured in.

Here is a golden basin that is mysteriously replenished when small amounts of liquid are taken from it but is not replenished at all when larger volumes are removed.

The gathered visitors surround a wooden figure of a flute player. The flautist is painted in lifelike skin tones but with intricate gold ornamentation. He wears fine clothing, red, blue and gold. On his head there sits a blue silk Dulband draped elaborately around a pointed felt Kullah skullcap.

Here are the three brothers known as the Banû Mûsâ. They are the sons of Mūsā ibn Shākir al-Munajjim, a former bandit who became a close friend of al-Ma’mun, the son of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. When Mūsā died, al-Ma’mun became the guardian of the three brothers and under his patronage, they have become leading scholars in the House of Wisdom, and so in Baghdad the capital of the Abbasid dynasty, and so in the Muslim Empire, and so in the whole world.

The eldest brother, Muhammad, stands off to one side taking in the whole scene, looking from the audience to the flute player and back again, occasionally glancing up, narrowing his eyes and frowning at the dark night.

Though their books are written jointly it is well known that both Muhammad and al-Hasan, the youngest, favour geometry but Muhammad also has a passion for astronomy and somewhat esoteric theory. In years to come, he will become known as the first person to point to the universality of the laws of physics.

al-Hasan, the youngest brother, is busy directing the servants to distribute glasses of rich dark wine poured from a pale blue and, of course, ingenious vessel. He understands that he and his brothers are not simply demonstrating their newly developed principles of engineering. They are creating a scene, telling a story, performing a mystery, presenting a challenge. He is paying attention to the theatrical details.

Ahmad, the practical middle-brother, is the one who makes the engineering work. He is the one who brings the machines to life. He does this now.

Taps are opened and water flows through pipes. Air is pushed through the flute and cylinders inside the automata begin to turn. Raised pins on the cylinders open and close the keys of the flute. The flute player begins to play. Delicate music mixes with the sound of water, air, and subtle machinery.

The mouths of the audience members drop agape, their eyes open wide, they have the irresistible urge, often felt by those who are witnessing an impossibility, to point at it. And so they point their fingers at the flute player and they look around at each other’s faces to be sure they are not the only ones seeing its fingers dance on the keys and hearing the music from the wondrous device.

The Automatic Flute Player of the Banû Mûsâ is the first documented automatic musical instrument. He is the distant ancestor of the synthesiser. He is the grandfather of children’s music boxes, chiming mystery clocks, and Kraftwerk, but he is much more than that. By changing his cylinders or adjusting the positioning of their pins he can play any tune a flute can carry. He is the first documented programmable machine. He is the ancestor of the Difference Engine, the Apple Mac, and the PlayStation. And he was created to trick.

The gathered dignitaries are silent. They are literally enchanted. The philosophers become an audience. The rulers become an audience. As they listen to the flute playing of an artificial life, lit by the soft light of the self-trimming lamps and the reflections of the mysteriously changeable fountains, drinking wine that issued from a technology they do not understand, they feel the magic of the future and they feel the limitations of their philosophy. They hold the firm belief that only pure philosophical thought can penetrate the mysteries of life but at this moment, they are unable to penetrate the mystery of a mechanical man playing the flute.

The Banû Mûsâ created their tricks for a number of reasons. They did so to earn their keep, to entertain their patron by filling his gardens with wonders. No doubt the sheer pleasure of play and wonder was something they enjoyed but their motivations were more complex and to consider them to be merely playing would be to gravely underestimate them. They were showmen and entertainers but by fooling important thinkers they were also challenging the prevailing philosophy of the day, a philosophy that valued pure thought over experimentation. By challenging this approach to learning they were raising the importance of the mechanical arts and inventing the art of invention. They were using illusions as a rhetorical weapon.

As the great magician, actor, and director Orson Welles once said, “If the story is good enough, if it is efficiently told, you win”. The tricks of the Banû Mûsâ were new stories that challenged the prevailing stories of the day. Their stories were good enough to win. And they were good stories because they were unfathomable tricks.

In their book Kitāb al Hiyal, literally The Book of Tricks, the brothers describe one hundred devices, most of which would be immediately familiar to a modern-day magician. We know that they did not simply demonstrate these devices, they performed them and they did so with an understanding of stagecraft.

In The Book of Tricks, the brothers suggest that at a certain moment the operator of a device “should occupy those with him by conversation or another distraction” or that they should “roll a ball inside the vessel to conceal the swish of moving water”. This is the first recorded mention of misdirection as a theatrical technique, the precursor of a modern magician’s artfully deceptive words and gestures.

As well as describing devices to trick people the brothers were aware of another sense of trickery in their engineering. The common translation of Hiyal as trick is based on the word Hila, a translation of the Greek μηχᾰνή as used by Archimedes to refer to any trick that allows one to perform actions that go against the natural state of the world. In other words, a machine can trick nature itself. All machines are tricks that fool nature.

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