The Medieval Engineers of Islam

Many of my historical projects have delved into the technology of the Middle Ages, and it’s a topic I enjoy researching. I am always discovering cool things–sometimes things I’m not, alas, in a position to use.  One fantastic example is the work of Ismail al-Jazari, who, in 1206 produced the absolutely stunning Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices.

A folio from the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices.

A folio from the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices.

This work details, in words and images, a hundred designs for inventions, many of them beautifully frivolous automata, like a water-propelled boat that sails across a decorative pool while the musicians on board perform on their musical instruments.  A series of tubes and shafts allow water and air pressure to alter, forcing the air out of the tiny flutes to make them whistle.

A boatload of mechanical musicians.

A boatload of mechanical musicians.

Others were more serious.  Religious observance has long been a driving factor in the invention and improvement of time-keeping devices (which I should use as a blog topic all by itself–idea noted), and Islam has been no exception.  One of the more elaborate constructions in the book is for a huge astronomical clock featuring more musicians (including drummers) who played the hours, in part so the faithful would know when to pray.  It tracked the moon and sun, and was able to compensate for the change in the length of day and night over the course of the year.

"Castle Clock" astronomical clock.

“Castle Clock” astronomical clock.

The book is beautiful and filled with mechanical wonders.  The link above to the wikipedia entry is worth following–it describes the different mechanisms employed in al-Jazari’s work, all the cams and pumps that make these devices go.

It may be easy to think of al-Jazari as an isolated genius, a quirk of a culture we now too often reduce to political terms, but he wasn’t the first Islamic engineer of such magnitude, and he wasn’t alone.  Check out the earlier creations of the Banu Musa brothers, who developed their own time-pieces in the ninth century and also wrote a treatise on geometry.

And a quick perusal of the wiki page for inventions in Islam brought up this quotation:  “Syrian Al-Hassan er-Rammah’s manuscript “The Book of Fighting on Horseback and With War Engines”(1280) includes the first known design for a rocket driven torpedo.”  Which even I didn’t know about.  As is often the case with historical research, the more I look, the more I learn.  Here’s an overview on the topic of science and technology in Medieval Islam by the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford.

In fact, the early Middle Ages are often considered a golden age of technology in Islam.  What happened?  War.  The crusades of Christendom, and the advances of the Mongols assailed the empire on multiple fronts and forced an interest in other pursuits.  Religious intolerance and violence on all sides broke centuries of learning and culture.  Did that time set up the on-going prejudice and mistrust that flavors current relations between the western world and the Islamic one?

My father is himself an engineer.  At a gathering of fellow engineers from all over the world, he reflected, along with a small group of new acquaintances, that one key way for the West to confront and defeat terrorists would be to target the people who create devices like IED’s, car or vest bombs, and other small-scale weapons.  They realized they were speaking of engineers targeting other engineers. . . a sobering thought on an occasion marked by international cooperation and good-will.

I don’t have a conclusion for this one, except to wonder what might be achieved for the world if we were able to create a new golden age when human ingenuity might once more be employed for delight and awe.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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One Response to The Medieval Engineers of Islam

  1. Pingback: God’s Clockmakers: factors in the early development of time-keeping technology | E. C. Ambrose

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