More About Novelty Garden Special Effects Of The Past
During the mediaeval period in Europe, Islamic gardens were renowned for wonderful mechanical garden features, though these have almost entirely disappeared. For instance, in the garden of one Baghdad palace was an artificial tree made of gold and silver with metalwork birds which produced mechanical birdsong.
We know exactly how some of these devices worked, thanks to Al-Jazari, a Muslim inventor and engineer of the 12 century CE who described his inventions very clearly in his ‘Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices’.
Al-Jazari’s garden features
- A fountain which alternated automatically every 15 minutes between sending up a straight jet of water and a multi-jet spray like a flower. It did this through little hidden buckets which gradually filled with water, then tipped over and, as they did so, moved the water-supply pipe so it fed the pipe to a different fountain head.
- A garden flute which played a continuous note. Water drove air out of vessels and into the flute’s mouthpiece to make it play, on the lines of a whistling kettle. This was the method used for the artificial birdsong fashionable in grand gardens of the time.
- A model boat rowed on a pond by mechanical sailors, while mechanical musicians played harp and flute on deck. This worked by cams driven by a hidden waterwheel inside the boat, fed by an internal water-tank. Through a water-vessel which slowly filled, then overbalanced and poured water on to the waterwheel, the crew were programmed to suddenly start working at 30 minute intervals. This may have given garden guests a surprise.
For more about Al-Jazari, see:
From the 16th century, water-powered special effects became very fashionable in European gardens too. Arab manuals gave initial guidance and the overbalancing buckets, which Al-Jazari invented, play a big part in a 17th century English catalogue explaining the wonderful new water-powered devices. But almost all this technology disappeared in Europe too. Practically the only working example left in Britain is a metalwork willow-tree, with water shooting from its branches, in Chatsworth House gardens, near Sheffield. However in one European palace garden - Hellbrunn in Salzburg, Austria – visitors can still witness many water-powered wonders in perfect working order. There is water-powered birdsong and music, a play by robot actors driven by hidden waterwheels, a grimacing robot face, as well as many joke fountains. If anyone finds this side of garden history hard to believe, a trip to Hellbrunn is the answer.