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Medieval Masters of Mechanics

Medieval Masters of Mechanics

AUTOMATION has taken over industry​—especially the routine and repetitious tasks. But when did automatic, programmable devices first appear on the scene? Was it just a couple of centuries ago during Europe’s industrial revolution? You may be surprised to learn that automatic machines were invented much earlier.

Al-Jazari’s two-piston suction pump

During the early part of the era known as the golden age of Islamic science, from the 8th to the 13th century C.E. and beyond, Middle Eastern scholars translated into Arabic scientific and philosophical texts that preserved the works of such renowned Greeks as Archimedes, Aristotle, Ctesibius, Hero of Alexandria, and Philo of Byzantium. * Having these and other sources, the Islamic Empire​—which stretched from Spain across North Africa and the Middle East to Afghanistan—​possessed the knowledge that made it possible for them to make automatic machines.

Al-Jazari’s 13th-century manuscript illustrating his Elephant Clock

Those machines, says historian of technology Donald Hill, could “continue working for long periods​—hours, days or even longer—​without human intervention.” Why? The engineers had invented effective control mechanisms that made automation possible. The machines used water from elevated tanks to provide a steady supply of energy. Automatic switching opened and closed valves or changed the direction of water flow. The machines also had feedback systems, as well as what Hill calls “precursors of fail-safe devices.” Consider some examples.

The Ingenious Banu Musa

The three Banu Musa​—Arabic for “sons of Musa”—​lived in ninth-century Baghdad. They drew on the works of their Hellenistic forerunners Philo and Hero, as well as Chinese, Indian, and Persian engineers, to make over 100 devices. According to science writer Ehsan Masood, these include water fountains that changed their patterns at intervals, clocks with visual gimmicks, and vessels that served drinks automatically and replenished themselves using clever combinations of floats, valves, and siphons. According to historian of science Jim Al-Khalili, the sons of Musa also built rudimentary life-size automatons​—a “tea girl” that actually served tea and a flute player, “possibly the earliest example of a programmable machine.”

These automatic systems had much in common with modern machines. However, “they used mainly water under pressure rather than electronics, but many of the operating principles are the same,” says science writer Ehsan Masood.

 Al-Jazari​—“Father of Robotics”

In 1206, Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari completed his work, sometimes translated Compendium on the Theory and Practice of the Mechanical Arts. It has been called “a study in systematic machine design.” Some of al-Jazari’s technology went far beyond that published by the Banu Musa, and his descriptions and diagrams are so detailed that modern engineers can recreate his devices.

Al-Jazari’s book illustrates water-raising devices, water clocks, candle clocks, water dispensers, musical automatons, and a pump that converted the rotary motion of a waterwheel into the back-and-forth movement of a piston that pumped water with great force. Historians give al-Jazari the credit for designing hydraulic pumps three centuries before the same basic design appeared in the West.

Al-Jazari also produced whimsical, yet functional, clocks. The one illustrated here has been reconstructed in a Dubai shopping mall. The timing mechanism is a perforated bowl that sits in a water reservoir inside the elephant’s belly. The bowl becomes full in 30 minutes and then sinks, triggering a series of actions that utilize ropes and balls that are released from the “castle” on the elephant’s back. When the half-hour cycle ends, the water bowl is automatically refloated, and the process starts over. This device and other automatic machines attributed to al-Jazari have earned him the title “father of robotics.”

The story of man’s ingenuity is truly amazing! Yet, that story is more than just interesting history. It also gives us a sense of perspective. At a time when many boast about modern technology, we are reminded of just how much we owe to the brilliant and fertile minds that preceded us.

^ par. 3 Regarding the translation work undertaken by Arabic scholars, please see “How Arabic Became the Language of the Learned,” in the February 2012 issue of Awake!