Western civilisation tends to take the credit for most of the machinery that we use today, and the Industrial Revolution (1760-1850) is considered by many to have been the main incubator for modern technological innovation. The reality is somewhat different. In fact, many of our mechanical devices and mechanisms, including automatons, were invented hundreds, if not thousands of years before Europe came of age.
An automaton is defined as “an organised machine that imitates the movements of a living body”, whereas a robot is “a machine that mimics the behaviour of human beings”. The concept of automatons and robots was known to the ancient Chinese, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, and is referred to, in fictional form, in Homer’s Iliad in the 8th century BCE.
Pulleys were almost certainly used for building ziggurats (pyramidal towers) in Mesopotamia in 4000 BCE. The first wheeled vehicles are known from China (2800 BCE) and Egypt (2000 BCE) over 4 000 years ago. Metal alloys, including steel, were produced in East Africa by 1500 BCE, and copper and iron smelting took place in West and East Africa from 900 BCE. Heavy lifting cranes using compound pulleys had appeared in Egypt by 550 BCE.
Starting to get the picture?
Archimedes created early examples of simple automatons, but it was the Egyptian, Hero of Alexandria, who created the first complex automatons with his self-moving stage effects, automatic mini-theatres and automatically moving human and animal figures. Equally remarkable was the seismograph developed by the Chinese polymath, Chang Heng, in the early 2nd century CE. This device was able to detect not only the magnitude, but also the direction of an earthquake. The “Cosmic Engine” clock created by Su Sung in China in 1090 CE featured 24 wooden figures, each holding a tablet displaying an hour of the day, that popped in and out of a small door, and musicians that struck drums and bells and played stringed instruments. But I would like to highlight the work of four mediaeval Muslim engineers whose work is hardly known, but who, I believe, helped to lay the foundation for the Industrial Revolution in Europe.
Banu Musa brothers
The three sons of Musa bin Shakir, known as the Banu Musa, initiated an extraordinary renaissance in technological engineering in the ancient Islamic world. The caliphs of Baghdad in the 10th century exploited this new knowledge and created palace gardens replete with ponds .flanked by moving statues of mounted warriors, swaying trees made of silver with mechanical whistling birds sitting in their branches, automatic puppet theatres, ponds of mercury on which gold boats oated, and roaring lion and galloping horse automata.
The Banu Musa (Jafar Muhammad, Ahmed and al-Hasan) worked in the first House of Wisdom (an early scientific academy) in Baghdad, Iraq, in the 9th century, and were famous engineers as well as mathematicians and translators. They translated into Arabic three important engineering books, the Pneumatics of Philo of Byzantium (2nd century BCE), the Mechanics of Hero of Alexandria (1st century CE) and a book on water clocks attributed to Archimedes. These books came to the attention of later Muslim engineers such as Al-Jazari, and were translated from Arabic into English at the beginning of the Renaissance.
They invented a range of innovative, self-changing fountains as well as self-wicking candles that replenished their oil. Their fountains were the first complex machines to use worm gears, navel valves, balance arms, and wind and water turbines. The use of a worm gear and water wheel to transmit motion from owing water to a revolving pipe was a major advance in control systems engineering that eventually led to the development of automatic machines during the Industrial Revolution.
They also made a series of extraordinary “trick devices”, the precursors of modern executive toys and interactive displays in science centres. One hundred of these devices were described in their Book of Ingenious Devices (ca 870 CE), which may mark the beginning of mechanical technology.
Their trick devices included the “Drinking Bull Robot” (a bull sculpture that makes a contented sound after drinking water) and the “Magic Flask” (in which water appears to change colour between the inlet and the outlet). The devices relied on water and air pressure, siphons, valves, oats and feedback control.
This legendary engineer (ca 1146-1206) was born into a family of talented craftsmen appointed by General Artuk in Diyarbakr, Anatolia (now south-east Turkey), to investigate new ways to measure time, regulate water and make life more comfortable.
Al-Jazari was inspired by Archimedes and Hero of Alexandria but was destined to surpass their work and pioneer the new field of robotic engineering. Were it not for a skewed version of history, he would probably be as famous today as Leonardo da Vinci.
The reality is that Al-Jazari was one of the first engineers to realise that machines can achieve independence, and even an apparent intelligence. He invented the first real automatons and robots, astonishing the world with his wizardry. This remarkable man realised that although the intelligence of machines would probably always be inferior to that of humans, they had an advantage in that they could perform repetitive tasks more efficiently.
He discovered that pipes and bowls, buckets and siphons, gears and camshafts, pistons and valves, when combined in ingenious ways, could achieve “marvellous control” without the need for human interference, except to turn them on and off , and repair them. He was not a theoretician like Da Vinci, but a technologist who designed and actually built the machines that he imagined.
Here are a few of Al-Jazari’s more outstanding innovations:
He was the first engineer to use a crank in a complicated machine – his One-Scoop Water-Raising Machine. A crank converts rotary motion into linear motion, and remains essential to the functioning of many machines today. He was also the first engineer to use a crank in a crank-connecting rod system, as well as a slider crank. These mechanisms did not appear in Europe until the 15th century, when they launched a revolution in engineering.
Al-Jazari invented five water-raising machines, two of which were improvements on the shadoof, and one replaced animal power with gears and water power. He was the first to introduce crankshafts, cog wheels, pistons, suction and delivery pipes, conical valves and one-way clack valves into pumps. His “Reciprocating Water Pump” was the first to introduce the double-acting principle (in common use today) whereby one piston sucks water while the other piston delivers it.
In addition to building utilitarian technologies Al-Jazari created examples of fine technology. His famous water clocks, for example, not only told the time and highlighted the advanced state of technology in his time, but also showcased the universality of Islam. His giant Elephant Water Clock is a magnificent example of early technology. It comprises a wooden carving of an Indian elephant supporting a tower with two pivoting Chinese serpents.
On top of the tower is a phoenix that spins around every time a ball passes, an arc of circular discs that indicate the passing hours, and a balcony man who regulates the movement of the balls into the mouths of the serpents. A mahout, or elephant driver, and a scribe, who indicates the minutes, sit on the elephant, which is covered with a Persian carpet. Inside the elephant’s body is a Phoenician “sinking bowl” mechanism that causes the mechanism to re-set.
In his equally ornate Castle Clock, built ca 1206 and widely regarded as the first programmable analogue machine, musicians play their wind and percussion instruments on the half-hour, and small doors open on the hour, as in a modern cuckoo clock.
When the king instructed him to make a small, portable timekeeping device, Al-Jazari came up with the Scribe Clock, which uses an innovative float-and-gear mechanism to tell the time.
His Musical Boat features an orchestra of musicians who play their instruments when a tilting basin mechanism causes a camshaft to turn and move the levers attached to the musician’s arms.
He also created an automated robot in the form of the Robotic Man, which helped the king to perform his private ablutions before prayer and meals. The slave automaton was carried into an audience with the king by a real servant. Before he left, the servant turned a knob to open a valve, which started an automated process inside the robot which culminated in the robot pouring water for the king (to the accompaniment of synthetic birdsong), then moving its left hand forward to offer him a towel, comb and mirror.
This robot, combining function with an exquisite and ingenious design, uses mechanical devices (feedback mechanisms, one-way valves, siphons, a whistle blown by air pressure) that were centuries ahead of their time. It is also one of the first automatons that serves a person directly, and has both a serious objective (to help the king) and a whimsical goal (create a humanoid robot with Asian features that serves the king in the absence of live servants).
By the early 1200s, Al-Jazari had made numerous water clocks, candle clocks, water pumps, automatons and other devices for the Urtuq kings. King Nasr al-Din, son of the great Saladin, said to him: “You have made peerless devices, and through strength have brought them forth as works; so do not lose what you have wearied yourself with and have plainly constructed. I wish you to compose for me a book which assembles what you have created separately, and brings together a selection of individual items and pictures.”
Obeying this royal decree to the word, Al-Jazari produced his peerless The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (ca 1206). Now regarded as one of the most significant books on mediaeval engineering, it is written in such clear prose, and is so well illustrated, that it is accessible to both engineers and non-engineers.
Interestingly, the manuscript of his original book has survived to modern times and was first published in English in 1974 by D Reidel Publishing Company in Holland. It may be ordered on the Internet.
Recreating Al-Jazari’s machines
Al-Jazari described and illustrated the design and functioning of his Elephant Water Clock, Castle Clock, Robotic Man and Scribe Clock in such detail that MTE Studios, a specialist consultancy company with workshops in Cape Town and design studios in Dubai, has been able to make exact, functioning replicas of these extraordinary machines. These replicas are now on display in museums, science centres and shopping malls in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. A travelling exhibition titled “Sultans of Science”, devoted to Islamic contributions to science and technology during the so-called Golden Age of Islam (650-1650), has also been made by MTE Studios, and is currently touring North America.
There were many other pioneering Muslim engineers during this period, including Al-Muradi (10th century – complex automated stage sets using levers, pulleys, feedback systems and secret hatches); Al-Khujandi (10th century – sextants and observatories); Al-Karaji (10th/11th century – underground water conduits); Al-Biruni (11th century – complex mechanical calendars); Hasan al-Rammah (13th century – military technology); Al-Hamawi (14th century – astronomical instruments) and Taqi al-Din al-Rasid (16th century – automated water pumps, observatories and astronomical instruments).
Al-Din’s Six-Cylinder Reciprocating Water Pump was the first complex machine to use rocker arms, vertical pistons and cylinders in combination with a camshaft. He wrote a beautiful book on engineering titled The Sublime Methods of Spiritual Machines (ca 1580). There were also many famous mediaeval patrons of engineering, such as the Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who sent an hydraulic organ to Charlemagne as a gift in the year 809 CE!
Clearly, Renaissance engineers in Europe were standing on the shoulders of giants.
- Learn how Al-Jazari’s Elephant Clock works. It's ingenious!. [click here]
Professor Mike Bruton is Director of Imagineering at MTE Studios in Cape Town. His role includes conducting research and contributing to the design of museums and exhibitions focusing on Islamic contributions to science and technology. He has a keen interest in the history of science and technological innovation.