Elephant Clocks & Sultans of Science

“How many centuries did the Islamic Golden Age last?” a student asked me, thrusting his worksheet in front of me, anxious for me to answer his question. “6, 8, 9, or 10?”

“Uh…9? No. . Wait…” I answered, flustered because I can’t calculate in my head—I knew it lasted from the 8th to 13th centuries, but basic arithmetic slipped my mind at the moment. Our tour guide told the boy to go do the worksheet himself.

That was our introduction to the wonderful Sultans of Science: 1000 Years of Knowledge Rediscovered, a featured exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre.


I became enthralled by the exhibit after seeing a photo of a replica elephant clock on Twitter, especially since I began learning about Islamic history of medicine and science a few years ago in order to add the topic as a module for my course on the History of Medicine. So I invited fellow historian Samantha Sandassie to visit the exhibit with me, to explore the history of Islamic medicine and chat about all things related to medicine, history, and random things of life.

Behold, the Elephant Clock!

Photo by Jai Virdi-Dhesi
Photo by Jai Virdi-Dhesi
Photo by Jai Virdi-Dhesi
Photo by Jai Virdi-Dhesi
Photo by Jai Virdi-Dhesi
Photo by Jai Virdi-Dhesi

This remarkable machine is the work of al-Shaykh Ra’is al-Amal  Badi’ al-Zaman abu-‘Izz Isma’il ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari (1136-1206), a Muslim engineer who lived north of Baghdad under the Ayyubid Dynasty.[1] He was named after his birthplace, Al-Jazari, a region in northern Syria and Iraq between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia; he lived most of his life in Diya Bikr in Upper Mesopotamia (now Southern Turkey). Approximately between 1174 and 1200, al-Jazari severed as the mechanical engineer to the Artuqid kings of Diya Bakir.

Around 1198, al-Jazari began writing his extraordinary book, Al-Jami’ bayn al-‘ilm wa-‘l-‘amal al-nafi’ fi sinat’at al-hiyal (Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices), after spending twenty-five years at the Artuqid court. The book was written in response to the request of the Artuqid king Nasir al-Din Mahmud ibn Muhamma; al-Jazari completed the book shortly before his death.

The book is an outstanding contribution to mechanical engineering, a compendium of both theoretical and practical mechanic, and beautifully illustrated. Al-Jazari describes fifty different types of machines in varying complexity, including: 10 water clocks; 10 designs of automata vessels for dispensing water and wine; 10 designs of water dispensers for bloodletting devices; 10 fountains and musical automata; 5 designs of water raising machines; and 5 machines or instruments for measuring spheres and locks. The book is not a theoretical compendium, but a practical guide—al-Jazari even includes how his water designs can be used for irrigation and domestic purposes.

The Elephant Clock is an intricate testimonial to the cosmopolitan nature of Islamic science and is a reflection of al-Jazari’s many travels. The elephant represents both Indian and African cultures; the dragon, Chinese; the phoenix, the ancient Egyptians; the water flow a representation of ancient Greek architecture; the Persian carpet; and the turbaned man on top of the elephant, Islamic culture.

A page from a dispersed copy of a manuscript, dated 1315, of al-Jazari’s “Kitab fi macrifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The earliest water clocks were simple devices used mostly for astronomy and astrology. By the 12th century, water clocks became complex marvels of engineering skill and craftsmanship, as the accuracy of clocks and time-keeping were improved by the addition of automated control systems used for regulating prayer times.[2] The Elephant Clock’s timing mechanism is based upon a water-filled bucket that is hidden inside the elephant, taking half an hour to fill. The pulley system releases a ball that tips the water sound each half-hour. You can see the actual mechanics of the clock in this video.

Special thanks to Anita Lennon and Sebastian Assenza for their generous hospitality and to Samantha for putting up with my constant photography.


[1] His full name indicates his titles: Ra’is al-A’mal means he was a chief engineer; Badi’al-Zaman means  he was unique and unrivalled; and al-shaykh indicated he was a learned and dignified scholar.

[2] For instance, see: Gerhard Dohrn van Rossum, History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).


An Experiment in Chloroform


A ringing, buzzing, singing, clicking, roaring, annoying sound. It can get so loud that every other sound in the vicinity is drowned out. It can last a few minutes, or hours, or even years. It can be divine retribution, the “Curse of Titus,” after an insect flew into Titus’ nose and picked his brain for seven years. Beethoven complained of the ringing. Charles Darwin recorded the amplitude and frequency of his tinnitus daily.

In the mid-1860s, the aural surgeon Joseph Toynbee (1815-1866) began experimenting for a cure for tinnitus. He was plagued with the malady for years and could sympathize with his patients who complained and clamoured for a cure. In Diseases of the Ear (1860), Toynbee described a few case studies in which he devised treatments that included leeching and syringing. None of the cases were successfully cured of tinnitus in the long run.

Wanting to help his patients as well as himself, Toynbee conceived an experiment that induced chloroform into the tympanic cavity through a Valsavian maneuver. Chloroform was discovered in the 1830s by three researchers working independently of each other: French scientist Eugène Soubeiran 1797-1859), American physician Samuel Guthrie (1782–1848), and German chemist Justus von Liebig (1803-1873). Shortly after, chloroform’s  properties as an anaesthetic was introduced by Scottish obstetrician Sir James Young Simpson (1811-1870) in 1847.

Glass ampoule of liquid chloroform, Paris, France, 1845-1945
Glass ampoule of liquid chloroform, Paris, France, 1845-1945

Chloroform is a clear, colorless liquid. Physicians, surgeons, or even dentists would drop liquid chloroform to a cloth and place it over a patient’s nose until they became unconscious. It could also be vaporized and inhaled through a face mask. It’s popularity owed to its effectiveness as pain relief, as an alternative to opium or alcohol, and especially more so when Queen Victoria insisted on using it when she gave birth to Prince Leopold in 1853.Chloroform was administered by physician John Snow (1813-1858), who would also administer it to Queen Victoria for the birth of Princess Beatrice in 1857.[1] As the Queen wrote in her diary upon the birth of Leopold,

Dr. Snow administered ‘that blessed Chloroform’ & the effect was soothing, quieting & delightful beyond measure.[2]

For Joseph Toynbee, his experiences with tinnitus as well as his clinical observations suggested that chloroform could aid in relieving the ringing. In the summer of 1866, he conducted an experiment with chloroform and hydrocyanic acid, using himself as the test subject. He hypothesized whether the inhalation of vapours could pass through the Eustachian tubes and reach the cavity of the tympanum, effectively treating the tinnitus.

On Saturday July 7, 1866, Toynbee’s servant George Power found his master in his office dead. A piece of cotton-wool was placed over Toynbee’s nose and mouth. The room smelt strongly of chloroform and on a chair besides the couch, there was a watch, empty bottles, and two papers with handwritten notes: “The effect of inhalation of the vapour of chloroform for singing in the ears, so as to be forced to the tympanum, either by being taken in by the breath through a towel or a sponge, producing a beneficial sensation or warmth,” and “The effect of chloroform combined with “hydocyanic acid.”” The combination of chloroform and acid proved fatal.[2]

A familiar scene.  Sir James Young Simpson found unconscious following an experiment with chloroform. Lithograph: Edwin Hodder, c.1880
A similar scene.
Sir James Young Simpson found unconscious following an experiment with chloroform. Lithograph: Edwin Hodder, c.1880

10 Extreme 19th Century “Cures” for Deafness

The nineteenth-century introduced a tremendous number of treatments boasting cures for irremediable deafness. Some of these cures were advised by aurists (specialists of the ear); others were tested home remedies or marketed as proprietary nostrums. Below is a list of some of the most extreme measures that were once popular treatments:


L0058828 Packet of mercurous chloride tablets, Kassel, Germany, 1914-
Packet of mercurous chloride tablets, Kassel, Germany, 1914

The use of mercury for medical applications has been dated to the ancient Greeks, reaching its height in popularity in the 15th century. It was used for nearly every kind of ailment, from syphilis, to lung disorders, stomach complaints, and of course, deafness. It’s one of the most dangerous substances used in medicine; mercury poisoning includes symptoms such as psychotic reactions, violent muscle spasms, heart and lung issues, and explosive bowel movements!

As a “catch-all” cure, mercury was believed to be one of the most powerful remedies available for aurists–even the famed John Cunningham Saunders, founder of the London Infirmary for Diseases of the Eye and Ear (later Moorsfield Eye Hospital), favored mercury when surgical treatments were ineffective.

Compounds of mercury, such as calomel (mercurous chloride) were also prescribed in the form of a pill. They were, however, believed to be less harmful than mercury even though they slowly poisoned those who used it.

photo 1


Source: Daniel Bennett St. John Roosa, A Practical Treatise on Diseases of the Ear (London: W. Wood, 1878).

Okay, this one is not that bad—or at least compared to others on the list. Syringing was done to remove excess wax out of the ear, which was explained as causing a blockage in the auditory canal, thus diminishing hearing. However, some practitioners actually used syringes filled with all sorts of medicaments (e.g. eucalyptus, water, oil, nitrate solutions) and inserted the fluid into the ears. After a period of time for letting the solution “settle,” the practitioner would then syringe out the fluid. Imagine the dizziness all that excess fluid caused!



Yes, you read that right. All sorts of organic things were inserted into the ear to either enhance hearing or to extract their powers. Animal parts were additionally used as ingredients in medical recipes. Elk’s claw, pig’s bladder, fish bone, oil of earthworms, fat of eel, wood lice, ant eggs, cow’s feet, fox lungs, fowl grease have appeared a a cure or part of a cure for deafness.


Example of an air press & catheter set-up. From: William Wilde, Practical Observations on Aural Surgery (London, 1853).
Example of an air press & catheter set-up. From: William Wilde, Practical Observations on Aural Surgery (London, 1853).

Appearing in various forms since 1755, this was the process of inserting a catheter up the nostrils or through the mouth, in order to cure deafness through the Eustachian tubes (which connects the ear to the nose). 19th century French surgeons argued catheterization, followed with an injection of fluid through the nose, was the best means for restoring hearing. Other combinations included the use of smoke, coffee grounds, water, or even ether, in conjunction with catheterization. Yet, some French and British aurists insisted patients were better able to tolerate catheterization when it was combined with an air pump. 


Example of early 20th century plaster used for blistering. Hunterian Museum Collection.
Example of early 20th century plaster used for blistering. Hunterian Museum Collection.

Blistering was another very popular remedy for deafness. A caustic plaster made of fat or wax, was applied behind the ear (sometimes cut into a certain size) in order to raise a blister.  Any pus forming from the blister was highly desirable, as it was believed to be evident of toxins escaping from the body–in certain cases, the blister was cut, and re-cut, in order to bring forth pus. Or, further corrosive substances were applied to irritate the blister (e.g. to grow in size).

Speaking of irritating, another similar method was the use of setons, a thread placed underneath the skin behind the ear. The site was further inflamed in order to induce beneficial pus. Aurists believed blistering and setons were the best remedy for deafness arising out of the mastoid cells (hollowed out spaces in the ear’s temporal bone).

Use of a seton on the neck behind the ear. From Johannes Scultetus, Armamentarium Chirurgicum (1655)
Use of a seton on the neck behind the ear. From Johannes Scultetus, Armamentarium Chirurgicum (1655)


photo 5 (1)

Also known as “silver nitrate,” this was used as a cauterizing agent to remove blockages in the ear impeding hearing. For instance, an abnormal growth, irregular auditory canal, or herpes warts, were treated with an application of lunar caustic. It was also used for treating ulcers in the ear. And then there were the stranger applications… In the 1820s, the aurists John Stevenson recommended touching the tonsils with a solution of lunar caustic in order to treat deafness arising out of the Eustachian tubes.


Davis & Kidder's patented Magneto-Electric Machine, c.1880.
Davis & Kidder’s patented Magneto-Electric Machine, c.1880.

As electricity became a part of everyday lives in the nineteenth-century, practitioners became excited about its applications for medical ailments. Some aurists recommended a course of electrotherapy aided by weak solutions of iodine of zinc to simulate discharge. Other aurists applied electric currents directly into sites of ulcers in the ear to produce a rapid growth of healthy granulations and thus restore hearing. It was believed that electricity could correct deafness caused by paralysis of the auditory nerves, which prevented sound vibrations from being transmitted properly to the eardrum.

The powerful benefits of electric currency were certainly applied into all sorts of devices, especially at the end of the nineteenth-century although some aurists were critical of its useFor instance, Martin Kroger invented an Ear Bath, which applied electricity to the ear with stable electrodes soaked in warm water and medicinal properties!


VIbration for ear disease using a tissue oscillator, 1920.
VIbration for ear disease using a tissue oscillator, 1920.

Vibration was another fashionable medical option during the nineteenth-century. It was particularly used to treat cases of dry middle ear catarrh (buildup of calcium in the small bones in the ear) by supplying small amounts of current to break up the calcification and restore sound waves.  All sorts of technologies and treatments were developed making use of the power of vibratory force, such as the phonograph or Lambert Synder Health Vibrator.

photo 5 (2)


An antique violet ray machine, 20th century.
20th century violet ray machine

Ultraviolet therapy arose during the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth century to compliment the growing use of electrotherapy by using high-frequency electric current. For deafness, it was believed to be beneficial in destroying bacterial growth, enhancing blood flow to the ear, and reducing any abnormal growths in the auditory canal. Violet ray devices included an electrode that shone a bright glow when energized; the ray was believed to cure anything. They were also quite popular as patent medicine and quack cures.


photo (3)

Speaking of patent medicine and quack cures, no remedy for deafness was more notorious in the late 1800s as artificial eardrums. These were tiny devices that were inserted in the ear in order to resonate sounds throughout the auditory canal and eardrum. However, they had immense financial potential for proprietary practitioners: numerous companies sprung up in the United States, offering mail-order service for artificial eardrums. These eardrums were made of all sorts of materials, but the most dangerous (and also most popular ones) were made of metal–painful when inserted in the ear, but also argued to be superior in resonating sound. In the 1920s,the US Propaganda Department deemed artificial eardrums as the worst of all quack cures available to the public.

Of course, you always had the option to avoid deafness in the first place…

Galvanism & Deafness

Galvanism is a medical treatment that involves the application of electric currents to body tissues in order to stimulate the contraction of muscles. First experimented in the late eighteenth-century by Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) who investigated frog legs twitching once sparked by an electric current, galvanism was believed to be a miraculous application of scientific prowess and capable of curing all sorts of medical disorders. It even had the capacity for animating a corpse, as narrated in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein!

Aurists certainly saw the benefits of galvanism in cases of deafness they diagnosed as caused by paralysis of the auditory nerves. The paralysis prevented sound vibrations from being transmitted properly through the tympanic membrane (eardrum). Several nineteenth-century treatises on aural surgery discussed how galvanism could cure deafness by stimulating muscular action necessary for restoring the auditory nerves to function in the transmission of sound.

In his Elements of Galvanism, in Theory and Practice (1804), Charles Henry Wilkson outlined an apparatus for safely applying an electric current to cure deafness.


Regarding his apparatus, Wikson wrote:

When it is ascertained hat the deafness is of that particular nature, in which galvanism may be usefully employed, p…two conducting wires, A & B, at end of each which is a small plate of ivory, about one inch & half in diameter. Through center of the plates is passed a silver wire, with a small ball at its extremity. To be insulated, silver wires are about an inch in length, enclosed, with each of them in an ivory tube. Inside of right ear moistened with water, and ball is introduced the ear, with the ivory plate preventing the wire from penetrating too far. Similar procedure on left ear. Once inserted, completion of the circuit is conducted by bringing the end of the conducting wires into occasional contact with the trough (the plates between A and B).

He warned that great care should be taken when using the apparatus for the first time on a patient. The physician should use gentle power through a small number of plates, and not exceed seven or eight plates. Power can be increased by adding plates, but it depended on the sensations experienced by the patient: “Some persons scarcely feel the power of twenty plates; while others experience from such a proportion of the fluid a very distressing giddiness.”

The merits of galvanism were discussed by aurists in numerous publicatons, assessing the benefits of the procedure, or criticizing its miraculous applications. The aurist John P. Pennefather, for instance, wrote in his Deafness and Diseases of the Ear (1873):

I allude to this vaunted remedy from the specious character it presents, and the conquest frequency with which persons suffering from deafness are tempted to give it a trial, in many cases a prolonged one, to find themselves in the end but disappointed dupes. The error which the majority of people fall into with regard to the cause of their deafness is, that some defect exists in the nerve of audition, and therefore galvanism cannot fail to cure, and this popular error is taken advantage of by quacks to cry up its application as a specific for all cases of deafness.

Galvanic current, Pennefather asserted, “cannot have the slightest remedial influence; on the contrary, is more likely to exercise an injurious tendency.” He further explained that he was not decrying the valuable agency of medical galvanism, nor contending that it was not beneficial for particular cases of deafness. Rather, he warned its application should only be ascertained by a proper diagnosis and undertaken by skilled and trained aurists. It was not, nor should be, a catch-all cure for all sorts of deafness.

The Audiphone

I wrote a new entry over at Nineteenth-Century Disability: A Digital Reader:

On September 1879, Richard Silas Rhodes (1842-1902), president of a publishing company in Chicago, received a patent for his “Audiphone for the Deaf” his various improvements to the device. (U.S. Patent No. 319,828). Rhodes had conductive hearing loss[1] for twenty years following a bout of illness and was frustrated with his continuous failed encounters with ear trumpets. He observed he could hear the ticking of his watch when he held it in his mouth, and this inspired his construction of the Audiphone, which exploited the fact sound waves can be transmitted through the teeth or cranial bones.

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