The Golden Age of Islam was a time of prosperity and advancement. With Islam as their driving force, Muslim scholars excelled in literature, science, and above all, technology. Due to the scientific advancements of Islamic societies, technology become not just a useful tool, but a symbol of wealth, and even to a higher degree, a thing of art. And nowhere is this more evident than in the work of Ismail Al-Jazari, a Muslim engineer with a deep understanding of Utilitarian technology. And the most amazing thing about Al-Jazari’s many inventions, as we shall soon see, is the fact he came up with them all in the 12th Century, years before the Industrial Revolution. In fact, without Al-Jazari, many have argued the Industrial Revolution may have at best been heavily delayed, and at worst, not have happened at all.
Born in 1136 in Turkey’s south eastern Diyarbakir province, Al-Jazari spent 25 years in the service of three separate Artuqid Sultans. He was influenced by Archimedes, Hero of Alexandria, Philo of Byzantium, as well as many of his fellow Islamic engineers. But Al-Jazari did not just rehash previous engineers’ successes, but used them as a part of a grander design. He said of these wise men, “I found that some of the earlier scholars and sages had made devices and had described what they had made. They had not considered them completely nor had they followed the correct path for all of them… and so wavered between the true and the false.” He was a Polymath, and so impressed one of the Sultans that he was ordered to write a book with all his inventions and detailed illustrations — ‘The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices’. The 6-chapter long book did not just describe Al-Jazari’s inventions, but gave full construction details with beautifully illustrated diagrams and blueprints so that engineers of the future could recreate and/or develop his work.
One of Al-Jazari’s masterpieces was the castle clock. Standing at about 10 feet wide and 11 feet tall, the water clock featured a large zodiac dial at the top, 12 pairs of small doors, 12 small illuminated dials, 2 falcons, and 5 life-sized figures of musicians that produced actual music. You may think ‘So what? It’s just a clock with nice bits of decoration’, but this was an inconceivable bit of of engineering to Al-Jazari’s contemporaries — at least his European counterparts. See, the 12th Century is often dubbed the Dark Ages for European, but for Islamic society it was a period of enlightenment. Imagine, you were a European who was fighting your wars with swords and shields, and you see a device able to tell the time, with animations and music, all produce autonomously. Archimedes first documented a clock using a descending float tank and this clock follows the same principle. A float is controlled by the outflow of water from its tank, the float is heavy enough to drive pulleys around the clock. The outflow of water can then be used to power other mechanisms within the clock. Al-Jazari made Archimedes’ clock more accurate and used ideas of pneumatics and syphons first described by Hero and Philo. This was the predecessor to Al-Jazari’s more famous work in the elephant clock (pictured below) which featured dozens of components collected from several cultures around the world.
Al Jazari’s book also illustrates fully automated water raising machines that derive their power from rivers or streams, such as the reciprocating water pump and the water alarm flute. Al-Jazari also includes diagrams for animal-powered machines. Double acting pumps with suction pipes, the use of a crankshaft, the calibration of orifices, the lamination of timber to reduce warping, static balancing of wheels, and the use of paper models to establish designs all seem to have been inherited by European engineers from Al-Jazari. He was the first to convert rotary motion into linear motion using a crank and connecting rod, essentially pumps and engines, necessary tools in locomotives, vehicles etc.
So why is he called the father of robotics? Al-Jazari introduced the concept of automation to engineering. He built programmable fountains that could switch on and off, automatons in the form of servants to offer guests towels and paramount amongst his inventions is what many believe to be history’s first robot — the drummer clock. Consisting of 2 drummers, a harpist, and a flutist, the mechanisms animating the drummers could be programmed to play different beats.
Ismail Al-Jazari is but one of the countless Muslims scientists and scholars to be overlooked by history. As I addressed in the previous article in this series, The Father of Historiography, the lens of history seems to be obscuring the bigger picture, namely the achievements of anyone outside of Europe, and Al-Jazari is but one example — he deserves to go down in history.