On Father’s Day, thank the man responsible for the first known water-supply system

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father of engineering, water pumps

Ismail Al-Jazari’s Elephant Clock, which was powered by water.

As we celebrate Father’s Day this weekend, we thought it a fitting time to celebrate a 13th-century inventor who’s been called the “father of modern day engineering”: Ismail al-Jazari.

Al-Jazari, born in 1136, was the chief engineer at Turkey’s Artuklu Palace. Some of his greatest contributions to history revolved — literally — around water: He invented five types of pumps, and also built H2O-powered clocks.

One of his inventions, a chain-pump, made use of the first-known crankshaft. He also created water wheels and watermills that used cams (a device your car’s engine probably uses as well)  to operate automata — intricate machines that are considered among the first robots. One of the most famous of these is called the Elephant Clock, which stood 22 feet tall. Inside the clock is a bucket of water; inside the bucket is a bowl with a hole in the center. When the bowl fills up it sinks, triggering another mechanism that makes a snake tip forward. That pulls the bowl back up, and also triggers the figure of a man to hit a drum. The drumbeats mark every hour and half-hour. 

A recreation of his Elephant Clock can be seen at the Ibn Battuta shopping mall in Dubai. Another of his water clocks, called The Castle Clock, has been called the earliest programmable analog computer. (To read more about al-Jazari’s clocks and inventions, check out this story on Atlas Obscura).

The engineer also created a pump that ran on hydropower — a design that’s been in use ever since. Another invention, a double-action suction pump, was also driven by hydropower (a water wheel) and was used for irrigation. It was the first known use of a pump that relied on suction. The engineer then went on to develop the earliest water supply system that used gears and ran on hydropower, which supplied water to mosques and hospitals.

Pumps based on al-Jazari’s 13th-Century ideas still deliver our water in the 21st Century. So on this Father’s Day, we’d like to raise a glass of water to the man whose inventions made it possible to fill that glass up straight from the kitchen sink. And on behalf of all of us at LCA, we’d like to wish the dads out there a very happy Father’s Day.