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by: Martin Nick

  Throughout history, mankind has been naturally predisposed to look for ways of making life easier and more efficient. Many times this meant inventing tools to reduce the physical effort in daily tasks and, as time went by, man got creative and started thinking of ways to make tools work by themselves. This tendency brought about the dawn of automations, also known as automata. For the purpose of clarity hereafter, by “automata” we will generally refer to any of numerous mechanical objects that are moderately self-operating after being set in motion. The ultimate product of this development is of course the robots of today and tomorrow, but here we will concentrate on the specific historical contributions of Al Jaziri, a Muslim inventor of the 13th century AD. Understanding the importance of this Islamic innovator’s achievements in automata helps us take a sneak peek into the roots of today’s hi-tech automations.

Al Jaziri’s Early Life

  Al Jaziri’s complete name was Badi Al Zaman Abul I Ezz Ibn Ismail Ibn Al Razzaz Al Jaziri. He lived some eight centuries ago. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but the Al Jaziri part of his name, by which he became famous, refers to the area where he was born. The region was known as Al Jazira, which is found in present-day Iraq between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

  During his life, Al Jaziri devoted a long part of his professional career away from his homeland to serve the Urtuq court of Diyar Bakir in Upper Mesopotamia, which is in present-day Turkey. In doing so, he followed his father’s steps who also worked under the Diyar Bakir partons. Al Jaziri spent more or less twenty-seven years from 1174 AD to 1200 AD under the benefaction of the Urtuq princes. There he specialized as an innovator in mechanical engineering and became the chief mechanical engineer of the court. Al Jaziri’s inventive mindset was in tune with the prevalent socio-cultural trend in the Islamic world in this and the preceding couple of centuries when a number of important scientific inventions were made. Luckily, some of the best detailed of those in ancient manuscripts are the complex mechanical arrangements of the water-operated automatons. These included devices such as the water clock and other hydraulic mechanisms invented and made by Al Jaziri himself.

Al Jaziri’s Magnum Opus - A True Book of Knowledge

  Al Jaziri earned his well-deserved fame not just by being a great inventor and a great mechanical engineer. What helped spread the word about his ingenuity and helped people admire him for centuries to come was a well-documented, systematic series of manuscripts he kept about all his work. This eventually evolved into his famous book which he called “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices,” or in Arabic – “Al Jami' Bain Al 'Ilm Wal 'Amal Al Nafi Fi Sina'at Al Hiyal.” He compiled the complete volume in 1206 AD. Quite appropriately, some sources refer to the same book simply as “Automata.”

  Al Jaziri began putting together his manuscripts into a coherent volume partly because of a request by his sovereign, Sultan Nur Al Din Mahmud. As one might think, by all accounts it seems Al Jaziri was only happy to oblige. In essence, his book became a compendium of theoretical and practical mechanics. It has been admired in scientific circles as the most highly developed of its kind at the time and is often seen as exemplary of the peak of this movement of Muslim achievement. In this work, Al Jaziri put forth the basis of numerous methods and models that would set the foundation of mechanical engineering today.

  Al Jaziri's “Al Jami' Bain Al 'Ilm Wal 'Amal Al Nafi Fi Sina'at Al Hiyal” distinguishes between six general classes of mechanical apparatus. This has a great influence on the way they were later categorized in Europe in the Renaissance and afterwards, not least because he described the techniques of construction meticulously and precisely. Notably, the only reason for the unexpected emergence of the suction pump device in the manuscripts of the Renaissance engineers in Europe is that the idea was borrowed from Islamic engineers, Al Jaziri in particular, who were familiar with the pumps long before this period during the Middle Ages. Furthermore, Prof. Lynn White Jr. observed that segmental gears first clearly appear in Al-Jaziri’s writings, whereas in Europe they appear in Giovanni de Dondi's astronomical clock finished much later in 1364. Likewise, cranks were first mentioned in Al Jaziri’s book, some 300 years earlier than European engineers could make use of them, Leonardo Da Vinci being one of the first to do so.

  Throughout Al Jaziri’s book, there are descriptions of over fifty other machines, including water clocks, a hand washing device known as a “wadu machine,” and perhaps most significantly – Al Jazari’s machines for raising water.

Raising Water with Machines

  The first couple of machines for raising water that Al Jazari describes in his book are amendments to the shaduf. These improved devices employed a flume beam. In other words, as a substitute to a pole, an open channel is linked to a scoop, which has its spout elongated into a flume. The scoop dips into the water and when the beam rises, the water flows back through the channel and runs out into the irrigation system. These water raising machines were animal driven as in the saqiya.

  The third water raising machine that Al Jaziri devised was an advance model from the saqiya in which water drives the motion. This essentially eliminated the need for animals to run the machine, making it more self sufficient. In this case, running water helps rotate a water wheel which, through a mechanism of interconnecting perpendicular gears, makes a series of linked filled pots raise the water. One known example of this kind of a water raising machine was to be found on the Yazid River in 13th century Damascus, Syria, serving the needy at a local hospital.

  The fourth water raising machine also made use of the flume beam and was again driven by animal power. The flume beam was shifted up and then down by a relatively complex apparatus connecting gears with a crank. Notably, this is the first ever recorded use of a crank as a machine component. In comparison, in Europe the first known use of a crank as a machine element took place much later in the fifteenth century AD.

  The fifth water raising machine that Al Jaziri devised was again hydro powered. It was a pump in which a water wheel rotated a vertical cog wheel which in turn rotated a horizontal wheel. The horizontal wheel made two linked opposing copper pistons move back and forth. The cylinders of the pistons were attached to pipes for suction and delivery together. The suction pipes pulled out water from a water supply underneath, and the delivery pipes released the water into the impressive output point of some 12 meters over the mechanism. This machine was one of the first to put into practice the double-acting theory - at the same time as one piston sucks, the other one delivers the water.

Other Highlights in Al Jaziri’s Book

  The explanations offered in Jaziri’s Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices were easy to understand as they were very well illustrated. The illustrations most often showed the device being used in a practical setting. For example, one illustration included an automata where an Arab woman is filling and emptying a wash basin; another depicted a lavish elephant-clock.

  Also featured in the book were other water clocks which use progressing balls to ring out the hours on cymbals. In one of these clocks, balls are released from two falcons’ mouths on the hour to fall on cymbals positioned below. Another clock makes use of a sloping waterway to discharge balls.

  In addition to the elaborate explanations and illustrations, Al Jaziri's book is a masterpiece from a practical point of view for the very reason that the person behind it was indeed such an experienced mechanical engineer. He structured his explanations in such a manner so as to make them very understandable to his readers. There is no room for guesswork on the reader’s part - the text clearly explains the different machines to the last facet. Donald Hill, a British Charter engineer who specialized in Arab traditional technology wrote in 1974 that “It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of Al Jaziri's work in the history of engineering; it provides a wealth of instructions for design, manufacture and assembly of machines.” Two years later, in 1976 at the “World of Islam Festival” held in the United Kingdom, a tribute was paid to Al Jaziri when the London Science Museum showed a reconstructed functioning replica of his famous Water Clock.

  One of Al Jaziri’s pumps: using the earliest known suction pipe in a pump, the double acting principle, and the conversion of rotary to reciprocating motion. This mechanism plays an essential role in the advance of the steam engine and also that of modern reciprocating pumps. 

  Overall, when we look at all of Al Jaziri’s work, we cannot help but admire this 13th century Muslim engineering genius. All his inventions and innovations have one underlying purpose – to make everyday life easier for the people engaged in laborious tasks. His inventions were all very practical and very efficient. Although he worked under the patronage of dynasty rulers, his creations aimed to alleviate life of the ordinary man and woman in their daily struggles.  


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