Medieval robots? They were just one of this Muslim inventor's creations

From water pumps to musical automatons, Ismail al-Jazari's extraordinary machines ranged from practical to playful, delighting farmers and kings alike.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020,
By Jorge Elices
Colourful diagrams from The Book of Knowledge are not only delightful to the eye but also ...

Colourful diagrams from The Book of Knowledge are not only delightful to the eye but also practical and useful to the mind. Each one served as an instruction manual for how to build the machines and the mechanisms behind their movement. In al-Jazari’s famous peacock fountain, water flows from the bird’s mouth as tanks raise floats to activate “servants” to produce towels and soap. 

Photograph by Bridgeman

Fountains that could be programmed to switch on and off. A model of an Indian mahout (driver) who struck the half hour on his elephant’s head. Automatons in the form of servants that could offer guests a towel.

These are just some of the marvellous creations of the 12th-century Muslim inventor Ismail al-Jazari, who laid the groundwork for modern engineering, hydraulics, and even robotics. While some of his lavish and colourful creations were made as novelty playthings for the very wealthy, al-Jazari also made practical machines that helped normal people, including water-drawing devices that were used by farmers for centuries.

Passion for invention

Badi al-Zaman Abu al-Izz Ismail ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari was born in 1136 in Diyarbakır in what is today central-southern Turkey. The son of a humble craftsman, he was born in a time of political turmoil, a result of local power struggles as well as the effects of the Crusades.

Al-Jazari served as an engineer in the service of the regional rulers, the Artuqids. This dynasty had once expanded its empire into Syria. In the course of al-Jazari’s lifetime, however, Artuqid power came under the sway of the more powerful neighboring Zangid dynasty, and later still by the successors of the Muslim hero, Saladin. (Here's why the "Assassins" were sent to kill Saladin.)

Despite the upheaval of the Crusades, and the turbulent relations between different Muslim powers, life for the brilliant engineer was peacefully spent serving several Artuqid kings, for whom he designed more than a hundred ingenious devices. Unlike other practical inventors of the period, who left little record of their work, al-Jazari had a passion for documenting his work and explaining how he built his incredible machines.

In 1206, drawing on a quarter of a century of prodigious output, he gave the world a catalogue of his “matchless machines,” which is known today as The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Al-Jazari included meticulous diagrams and colourful illustrations to show how all the pieces fit together. Several incomplete copies of his work have survived, including one held by the Topkapi Sarayi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, prized for its artistic detail and beauty.

Intellectual inheritance

The Book of Knowledge is the only source of biographical information that exists on al-Jazari. The text exalts him as Badi al-Zaman (unique and unrivalled) and al-Shaykh (learned and worthy), but it also acknowledges the debt he owed to “ancient scholars and wise men.”

Al-Jazari’s inventions benefited from centuries of innovation and scholarship from previous eras, drawing on science and wisdom from ancient Greek, Indian, Persian, Chinese and other cultures. During the rapid expansion of Islam in the seventh century, Muslim rulers took a deep interest in the knowledge of the lands they conquered. They collected manuscripts and books at the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom). This institution thrived under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad in the eighth and ninth centuries as a library and academy. Along with other centres, it played a fundamental role in the medieval scientific and scholarly advances during the golden age of Islam. (Discover how early Islamic science advanced medicine.)

A bowl made during the Artuqid Dynasty in the late 12th century.
Photograph by INTERFOTO/AGE FOTOSTOCK

Along with philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and zoology, Muslim mechanical engineering reached exceptional heights at the hands of outstanding figures, including a trio of ninth-century Persian inventors, the Banu Musa brothers. They published many works, but al-Jazari was most likely influenced by their inventions featured in The Book of Ingenious Devices (also known as The Book of Tricks).
Al-Jazari was also influenced by non-Muslim inventors such as the late third-century B.C. Apollonius of Perga, an influential geometrist whom al-Jazari credits in his work.

New heights

Al-Jazari’s intention was not only to build on the legacy of these great inventors but to perfect it. He wrote in his foreword to The Book of Knowledge: “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.”

The machines in al-Jazari’s book were both practical and playful, from clocks to automaton vessels dispensing drinks. He designed bloodletting devices, fountains, musical automatons; water-raising machines; and machines for measuring.

Al-Jazari's most iconic invention is his elephant clock, which continues to delight today. Modern reproductions of the water-driven device can be found at several places in the world, including the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai; the Institute for the History of Arab-Islamic Science in Frankfurt, Germany; and the Museum of Horology, Le Locle, Switzerland.
Photograph by WHA/AGE FOTOSTOCK

Colourful diagrams from The Book of Knowledge served as an instruction manual for how to build the machines and the mechanisms behind their movement. A drawing of the driver from the elephant clock reveals how the arms should be attached.

Photograph by AKG/ALBUM

One of the most famous of his devices is an enormous water clock that featured an elephant carrying his driver and a tower filled with creatures. Simple water clocks had been used in ancient Egypt and Babylonia, but al-Jazari’s intricate invention clearly expresses his ambition to perfect them.

The different creatures that animate every half hour represent different cultures, like the dragons from China and the elephant of India. Every half hour, the internal mechanisms activate: The bird atop the dome whistles, a man drops a ball into a dragon’s mouth, and the elephant driver strikes the beast’s head.

A miniature from al-Jazari’s Book of Knowledge depicts a water-powered flautist automation that he described as a playful “alarm clock,” designed to deliver a gentle tone to wake someone from a nap. Topkapi Sarayi Museum, Istanbul.

Photograph by BRIDGEMAN/ACI

History's first robot?

Another of al-Jazari’s fantastical contraptions is of special interest to historians of science as it is regarded by many to be the first programmable “robot” in history. Much like a music box, this invention, a boat with four “musicians”—a harpist, a flautist, and two drummers— was designed to play songs to entertain. The mechanisms animating the drummers could be programmed to play different beats. (Robots entertained in al-Jazari's time, but their new abilities will transform ours.)

For all their ingenuity, such devices were playthings for the rich. With his courtier hat on, al-Jazari understood the need to dazzle his rich patrons, who would, in turn, dazzle visiting dignitaries with their resident genius’s latest wonder. As a craftsman from a modest background, he also knew the needs of the everyday and devised useful gadgets that would lighten the burden of everyday toil. The book describes in detail at least five machines that facilitated drawing water and irrigating, on the farm and at home. Other highly practical machines were also included in his book: a crank shaft that converts linear movement into rotary movement; and a means for the exact calibration of locks and other apertures, among much else.

The inner workings of a water-drawing machine show how hidden gears drive an animated cow around a vertical shaft, which powers the mechanism that scoops up water.

Photograph by BRIDGEMAN

The humble nature of The Book of Knowledge is also reflected in its language. While other inventors deliberately couched their prose in obscure language to limit it to a small elite, al-Jazari took pains to make it accessible to a general reader of the time so that they might build some of his more practical machines. Given that al-Jazari was as much interested in construction processes as in theory and calculations, some researchers have even described his book as a kind of “user’s manual.”

Life and legacy

Al-Jazari died in 1206, the year that he presented the sultan with his Book of Knowledge. He is remembered principally for this book, but his realised inventions would play a key role in civic life for many years to come. Among them was a water supply system using gears and hydraulic energy, which was used in the mosques and hospitals of Diyarbakir and Damascus. In some cases, systems modelled on his design remained in use until recent times.

Most of his innovations were centuries ahead of the achievements of European science. His work on conical valves—a key component in hydraulic engineering—was first mentioned in Europe more than two centuries later by Leonardo da Vinci, who was also reportedly fascinated by al-Jazari’s automatons.

Today al-Jazari’s name inspires awe among science historians. Engineer and technology historian Donald R. Hill, author of a landmark 1974 translation of The Book of Knowledge, said the importance of al-Jazari’s work “is impossible to over-emphasise.” As the father of robotics, he has been described as the “Leonardo da Vinci of the East,” a moniker that is in many ways a misnomer. It might be more accurate to describe Leonardo as the “al-Jazari of the West.”

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