800 Years Later: In Memory of Al-Jazari, A Genius Mechanical Engineer


Al-Jazari (1136-1206) was an important Arab Muslim scholar. He was an inventor and mechanical engineer who gained fame and glory with his famous book of mechanics Al-Jami `bayn al-`ilm wa 'l-`amal al-nafi `fi sina `at al-hiyal (A Compendium on the Theory and Useful Practice of the Mechanical Arts), the most significant treatise of the Islamic tradition of mechanical engineering and a ground breaking work in the history of technology. Some 800 years after his death, modern history of science is appealed to give him credit and celebrate his work.

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Al-Jazari's life and environment

Al-Jazari(1136-1206) was an important Arab Muslim scholar. He was an inventor and mechanical engineer who gained fame and glory with his famous book of mechanics, Al-Jami `bayn al-`ilm wa 'l-`amal al-nafi `fi sina `at al-hiyal (A Compendium on the Theory and Useful Practice of the Mechanical Arts), the most significant treatise of the Islamic tradition of mechanical engineering and a ground breaking work in the history of technology. Some 800 years after his death, modern history of science is appealed to give him credit and celebrate his work.

Al-Jazari's greatest treatise has always aroused great interest from historians of technology and historians of art. Indeed, alongside his accomplishments as an inventor and engineer, al-Jazari was also an accomplished artist. The surviving manuscripts of his book provide detailed instructions for all of his inventions and illustrate them using miniature paintings, a medieval style of Islamic art, to make it possible for a reader to reconstruct his inventions.

To have an idea of the innovative work of al-Jazari in the history of technology, we quote this sentence from the historian Lynn White who writes: "Segmental gears first clearly appear in al-Jazari, in the West they emerge in Giovanni de Dondi's astronomical clock finished in 1364, and only with the great Sienese engineer Francesco di Giorgio (1501) did they enter the general vocabulary of European machine design [1]."

Donald R. Hill, the English historian who was an academic authority in the history of Islamic mechanics and engineering, wrote in Studies in Medieval Islamic Technology: "It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of al-Jazari's work in the history of engineering. Until modern times there is no other document from any cultural area that provides a comparable wealth of instructions for the design, manufacture and assembly of machines… Al-Jazari did not only assimilate the techniques of his non-Arab and Arab predecessors, he was also creative. He added several mechanical and hydraulic devices. The impact of these inventions can be seen in the later designing of steam engines and internal combustion engines, paving the way for automatic control and other modern machinery. The impact of al-Jazari's inventions is still felt in modern contemporary mechanical engineering [2]."

Due to his fundamental mechanical inventions, al-Jazari has been described as the "father of modern day engineering", and due to his invention of an early programmable humanoid robot, he has been hailed as the "father of robotics". Actually, he should be considered just as important an inventor as Leonardo da Vinci.

Al-Jazari's full name is given at the beginning of his book as "al-Shaykh Ra'is al-A`mal Badi`al-Zaman Abu al-‘Izz ibn Isma`il ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari." The title Ra'is al-A`mal indicates that he was a chief engineer, while Badi`al-Zaman and al-Shaykh are titles of honour indicating respectively that he was unique and unrivalled and a learned, dignified person. The word ‘Al-Jazari' indicates that his family came from Jazirat ibn ‘Umar in Diyar Bakr. Another hypothesis is hat he was named after the area in which he was born, al-Jazira –the traditional Arabic name for what was northern Mesopotamia and what is now northern Iraq and north-eastern Syria, between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

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Figure 1: Picture of one of al-Jazari's automatic machines: a musical toy in the form of a boat. From a manuscript of his book copied in Syria in 715 H/1315 CE (opaque watercolour, ink and gold on paper). (Source).  

We do not know the date of his birth and our information about his life is obtained from his book. Like his father before him, he served as chief engineer at the Artuqid court, while serving the Diyarbakir branch of the Turkish Artuqid dynasty which ruled across eastern Anatolia. Al-Jazari was in the service of three Artuqid rulers: Nur al-Din Muhammad ibn Arslan (570-581 H/ 1174-1185), Qutb al-Din Sukman ibn Muhammad (681-697 H/ 1185-1200) and Nasir al-Din Mahmud ibn Muhammad (597-619 H/ 1200-1222).

It was in response to the request of Nasir al-Din Mahmud that al-Jazari wrote his book. He says in his introduction that he started his service at the Artuqid court in the year 570 H/1174, and that when he started writing the book he had already spent twenty five years in the service of Nur al-Din Muhammad, the father, and Qutb al-Din Sukman, the brother. From this information we conclude that probably al-Jazari started writing his book in the year 595/1198, two years before Nasir al-Din became king. From the Oxford manuscript copy of al-Jazari's treatise we learn that al-Jazari finished writing his book on 4 Jumada the Second, 602 H/ 16 January 1206. The oldest extant copy (preserved in Topkapi Sarayi Libray, Ahmet III collection, MS 3472) was completed by Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn ‘Uthman al-Haskafiat the end of Sha'ban 602 H/ 10 April 1206. From al-Haskafi's colophon we learn that al-Jazari was not living at this date. From these indications and other data, it may be concluded that he died in the year 602 H/1206, just few months after he had completed his work.

amid, now known as Diyar Bakr, where al-Jazari did most of his engineering research, is situated on the left bank of the Tigris. Travellers who visited the city during the 11th century admired its prosperity and enjoyed a period of peace and stability. Thus al-Jazari lived in the court of the Artuqid kings under conditions favorable for the invention and construction of his machines and for writing [3].

Al-Jazari's Magnum Opus book

The title of the oldest manuscript of al-Jazari's book is: al-Jami `bayn al-`ilm wa 'l-`amal al-nafi` fi sina`at al-hiyal (A Compendium on the Theory and Useful Practice of the Mechanical Arts). The Arabic edition published by Ahmad Y. al-Hassan in 1979 carries this title. The English translation published by Donald R. Hill in 1974 carries the title Book of Knowledge of Mechanical Devices. This translation was based mainly on MS Graves 27 of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where the Arabic title is Kitab fima`rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya. Between 1915 and 1921, two German scholars Wiedemann and Hauser published in German a series of seven articles in which they covered the six categories using the Bodleian copy [4].

The book describes in detail fifty devices (ashkal), which are grouped into six categories (anwa`):

1) ten water and candle clocks;

2) ten vessels and figures suited for drinking sessions;

3) ten pitchers and basins for phlebotomy and washing before prayers;

4) ten fountains that change their shape alternately, and machines for the perpetual flute;

5) five water raising machines;

6) five miscellaneous devices.

Each device or shakl is described in simple Arabic that is easy to understand, and each is accompanied by a general drawing. There are fifty of these and are numbered by the letters of the Arabic alphabet from one to fifty. For the complicated devices al-Jazari gave detailed drawings for the components of a device or for subassemblies so that the operation could be understood. The edited version of his book based on the surviving manuscripts, contains a total of 174 drawings. An alphabet letter marks each part in a device. The text explains the construction of the device with the aid of the letters so that the reader can understand the device by reading the text and referring to the illustrations.

The published Arabic text edited by al-Hassan enumerates fifteen manuscripts of al-Jazari's book in world libraries with one only probably in private hands. One is a Persian translation [5]. The best five manuscripts were used in arriving at the final printed text. The main one, however, was MS Ahmet III 3472 in the Topkapi Sarayi Librarary, Istanbul. This is the closest copy to the time when al-Jazari completed his writing in 602 H/1206.

Al-Jazari's achievements in the history of mechanical engineering

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Figure 2: Drawing of al-Jazari's "Elephant Clock" depicted by Fakhr ibn 'Abd al-Latif on a leaf. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New Yourk. Online here.  

Al-Jazari's book deals with a whole range of devices and machines, with a multiplicity of purposes. What they have in common is the considerable degree of engineering skill required for their manufacture, and the use of delicate mechanisms and sensitive control systems. Many of the ideas employed in the construction of ingenious devices were useful in the later development of mechanical technology.

The American pioneer historian of science George Sarton says about the special status of al-Jazari's book in the history of science and technology: "this treatise is the most elaborate of its kind and may be considered the climax of this line of Moslem achievement [6]." Donald R. Hill concludes also that "until modern times there is no other document, from any cultural area, that provides a comparable wealth of instructions for the design, manufacture and assembly of machines [7]."

Al-Jazari inherited the knowledge of his predecessors, but he improved on their designs and added devices of his own invention. The merit of his book is that it was the only book to discuss such a large variety of devices and to present them with text, illustrations and dimensions so that a skilled craftsman is able to construct any device on the basis of al-Jazari's description. This is why several of his inventions were reproduced, from the monumental water clock created for the World of Islam Festival in 1976, until the huge "Elephant clock" that stands 8 meters high in the "India" court at the Ibn Battuta shopping mall in Dubai and the recreation by FSTC scholars in Manchester of 3D-model animations of some machines of al-Jazari, such as the reciprocating pump with a water wheel as the drive source. The recreated machines as well as their animated models proved to be real machines, working perfectly well, and far from being just toys described in al-Jazari's book, as some historians have assumed erroneously.

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Figure 3: The huge "Elephant clock" that stands 8 meters high in the "India" court at the Ibn Battuta shopping mall in Dubai (free photograph by Jonathan Bowen, 2007.) To see the animation of the 3D-model recreated by FSTC of the elephant clock, click here.  

Many of al-Jazari's components and techniques were useful in the development of modern mechanical engineering. These include the static balancing of large pulley wheels; calibration of orifices; use of wooden templates; use of paper models in design; lamination of timber to prevent warping; the grinding of the seats and plugs of valves together with emery powder to obtain a watertight fit; casting of brass and copper in closed mold boxes with greensand; use of tipping buckets that discharge their contents automatically; and the use of segmental gears.

Al-Jazari's double acting piston pump is unique. It is remarkable for three reasons:

- it incorporates an effective means of converting rotary into reciprocating motion through the crank-connecting-rod mechanism;
- it makes use of the double-acting principle; and
- it is the first pump known to have had true suction pipes.

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Figure 4: The reciprocating pump from al-Jazari's manuscript, Topkapi Palace Museum Library, Ahmet III 3472. (Source).  

Al-Jazari occupies an important place in the history of automata, automatic control, robotics and automated musical theaters. His pioneering work is duly acknowledged in most histories. The inventions of al-Jazari are a source of inspiration to modern designers such as the use of rolling balls to sound the hours on cymbals and operate automata. This concept is currently used in toys and other devices and their makers had registered patents in their names.

Al-Jazari described a combination lock. There are now in world museums three combination locks that were made in the same period of al-Jazari. Although they are simpler than the lock of al-Jazari, they follow the same principle. Two were made around 597 H/1200 CE by Muhammad b. Hamid al-Asturlabi al-Isfahani and are located in Copenhagen and Boston. The third is in Maastricht, Holland. The first combination lock in Europe was described by Buttersworth in 1846 and the wheels of this lock are strikingly similar to the discs of al-Jazari [8].

All illustrations in al-Jazari's book are in color, and among the fifty main drawings are miniatures that are of great artistic merit. This resulted in the disappearance of some of these paintings from the manuscripts and they found their way to the international museums of art or to private collections.

Historians of art are of the opinion that there existed at the court of the Artuqids in amid a school of painting that produced narrative paintings of great value. Three of the existing al-Jazari's manuscripts were illustrated by members of this school.

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Figure 5: 3D-model recreated by FSTC of the reciprocating pump with a water wheel as the drive source. To see animation of the pump, click here.  

The elephant clock

One of the most significant inventions of al-Jazari was the famous elephant clock, consisting of a water-powered clock in the form of an elephant. The various elements of the clock are in the housing on top of the elephant. The various elements that compose this clock move and make a sound every half hour. This device is reminiscent of the elaborate clocks found on medieval town halls in Europe, which made the passage of time more entertaining with the performance of the moving figures.

A modern full-size working reproduction can be found as a centrepiece in the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai.

The timing mechanism is based on a water-filled bucket hidden inside the elephant. In the bucket is a deep bowl floating in the water, but with a small hole in the centre. The bowl takes half an hour to fill through this hole. In the process of sinking, the bowl pulls a string attached to a see-saw mechanism in the tower on top of the elephant. This releases a ball that drops into the mouth of a serpent, causing the serpent to tip forward. At the same time, a system of strings causes a figure in the tower to raise either the left or right hand and the mahout (elephant driver at the front) to hit a drum. This indicates a half or full hour. Next the snake tips back again and the sunken bowl is raised out of the water. The cycle then repeats [9].

This was the first clock in which an automaton reacted after certain intervals of time. In the mechanism, a humanoid automata strikes the cymbal and a mechanical bird chirps, like in the later cuckoo clock, after every hour.

The elephant clock of al-Jazari was the first mechanism to employ a flow regulator, which was used to determine the time when the clock strikes at hourly intervals. The hourly intervals were determined with the use of a small opening in a submersible float, which was calibrated to give the required rates of flow under different water rates.

This appears to be the earliest example of a closed-loop system in a mechanism. The clock functioned as long as there were metal balls in its magazine.

The different mechanical and artistic components of the Elephant clock of Al-Jazari reflect the contributions of Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese and Muslim civilisations. This is why it was called rightly a clock of civilisations, a device in which met influences going back to different cultures, as it was currently the case in the past, and especially in the Islamic civilisation [10].

References and resources

1. Articles on al-Jazari in www.MuslimHeritage.com

  • Al-Jazari - the Mechanical Genius
  • The Machines of Al-Jazari and Taqi Al-Din
  • Automation and Robotics in Muslim Heritage: The Cultural Roots of al-Jazari's Mechanical Systems
  • Attempts of Flight, Automatic Machines, Submarines and Rocket Technology in Turkish History
  • The Clock of Civilisations
  • A Review of Early Muslim Control Engineering
  • Muslim Heritage Videos
  • Transfer of Islamic Technology to the West
  • Pioneers of Automatic Control Systems
  • When Ridhwan al-Sa'ati Anteceded Big Ben by More than Six Centuries
  • The Mechanics of Banu Musa in the Light of Modern System and Control Engineering
  • Water Management and Hydraulic Technology

    2. Further resources and works

  • Aiken, Jane Andrew, "Truth in Images: From the Technical Drawings of ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari, Campanus of Novarra and Giovanni de' Dondi to the Perspective Projection of Leon Battista Alberti", Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. 25 (1994): pp. 325-359. BBC & Open University, What the Ancients Did for Us, Episode 1, "The Islamic World".
  • Al-Hassan, Ahmad Yusuf and Hill, Donald Routledge, Islamic Technology. An Illustrated History. UNESCO/Cambridge University Press, 1986. French translation: Sciences et techniques en islam, Paris: Edifra, 1991.
  • Al-Hassan, Ahmad Yusuf, Al Jazari and the History of the Water Clock.
  • Al-Hassan, A. Y., The Origin of the Suction Pump: Al-Jazari (1206 A.D).
  • Ahmad Y Hassan, Transfer Of Islamic Technology To The West, Part II: Transmission Of Islamic Engineering.
  • Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y, The Crank-Connecting Rod System in a Continuously Rotating Machine.
  • Al-Hassani, Salim, Muslim Engineer: Al-Jazari.
  • Al-Hassani, Salim, Al-Jazari: the Mechanical Genius (2001).
  • Al-Hassani, Salim, The Machines of Al-Jazari and Taqi Al-Din. (2004).
  • Al-Hassani, Salim, and Abattouy, Mohammed, "La pompe hydraulique d'al-Jazari(début du 13ème siècle)", L'Islam des découvertes. Paris: Editions Le Pommier (forthcoming in 2008).
  • Hariri, F. 1997. Study and Analysis of the Water Machines in the book entitled `A Compendium of the Theory and Practice of the Mechanical Arts by al-Jazari'. Applying Modern systems on Control Engineering. Master Thesis. Aleppo: Aleppo University (in Arabic), 1997.
  • Hill, Donald R., "Technology and Mechanics (Hiyal)". In The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance, edited by John Hayes, Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press, 1983, pp. 203-217.
  • Hill, D. R., History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times, London: Croom Helm, 1984.
  • Hill, D. R., "Islamic Fine Technology and its Influence on the Development of European Horology", Al-Abhath (American University of Beirut), vol. 35 (1987): pp. 8-28.
  • Hill, D. R., "Mechanical Engineering in the Medieval Near East", Scientific American, May 1991, p. 64-69.
  • Hill, D. R. "Arabic Mechanical Engineering: Survey of the Historical Sources", Arabic Sciences and Philosophy (Cambridge University Press), vol. 1 (1991): pp. 167-186.
  • Hill, D. R., Islamic Science and Engineering. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.
  • Hill, D. R. "From Philo to al-Jazzari". In Learning Language and Invention. Essays Presented to Francis Maddison, edited by D. W. Hackmann & A. J. Turne. Aldershot: Variorum, 1994, pp. 188-206.
  • Hill, D. R., A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times, London/New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Hill, D. R., "Engineering". In Encyclopaedia of the History of Arabic Science, edited by Roshdi Rashed. London and New York: Routledge, 1996, vol. 2, pp. 751-795.
  • Hill, D. R. Studies in Medieval Islamic Technology: From Philo to al-Jazari--From Alexandria to Diyar Bakr, edited by David A. King. Aldershot, Eng./Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1998, Variorum Collected Studies Series.
  • Hill, D.R., "Mechanical Technology" and "Civil Engineering". In The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture, edited by A. Y. Hassan, Yusuf Iskandar, Albert Zaki and Ahmad Maqbul. Vol. 4: Science and Technology in Islam, Parts I-II. Paris: UNESCO, 2001.
  • Jazari, al-, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices: Kitáb fí ma'rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya, translated by D. R.. Hill. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1974.
  • Jazari, al-, Al-Jami` bayn al-`ilm wa 'l-`amal al-nafi` fi sina`at al-hiyal. Edited by Ahmad Y. al-Hassan. Aleppo: Institute for the History of Arabic Science, 1979.
  • Jazari, al-, Al-Jami` bayn al-`ilm wa 'l-`amal al-nafi` fi sina`at al-hiyal. Compendium on the Theory and Practice of the Mechanical Arts. Edited by F. Sezgin. Frankfurt: Institut für Geschichte der Arabish-Islamischen Wissenschaften, 2003.
  • [Jazari, al-], The Automata of Al-Jazari. The Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul.
  • Nick, Martin, "Al-Jaziri (sic!): The Ingenious 13th Century Muslim Mechanic", http://www.alshindagah.com/marapr2005/jaziri.html
  • Kumarasvami, Ananda K. The Treatise of Al-Jazari on Automata Leaves from a Manuscript of the Kitab fi Ma'arifat al-Hiyal al-Handasiya in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Elsewhere, Boston: Museum of fine arts, Boston. Communications to the trustees, VI, 1924.
  • [Mostra (= exhibition)], Le Origini della scienza moderna nella reciproca
    influenza tra Islam ed Europa: Da al-Jazari a Leonardo da Vinci
  • [Sezgin, ed.] Badi` Azzaman al-Jazari (d. after 1206). Texts and Studies. Collected and reprinted by F. Sezgin et al. (Natural Sciences in Islam, 41). Frankfurt: Frankfurt: Institut für Geschichte der Arabish-Islamischen Wissenschaften, 2001.
  • Sheffield University, A 13th Century Programmable Robot.
  • Kâhya, Esin & Dosay Gökdogan, Melek & Demir, Remzi Gazi & Topdemir, Hüseyin & Unat, Yavuz, Cezeri, Yesterday and Today (in Turkish). University of Ankara, Faculty of Letters, Research of the History of Science in Turkey, 2003.
  • [Wikipedia]. Al-Jazari (From Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia).
  • Yavuz Unat, "Two Scientists in the History of Technology: Jazari and Taqi al-Din" (in Turkish). Proceedings of the Congress `Turkish Science and Technology', edited by Emre Dölen and Mustafa Kaçar. Istanbul: The Turkish Society for History of Science, 2003, pp. 75-94.

    End Notes

    [1] Quoted in: The Automata of Al-Jazari, the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul.

    [2] D. R. Hill, Studies in Medieval Islamic Technology, 1998, II, pp. 231-232.

    [3] Ahmad Yusuf al-Hassan, Al Jazari and the History of the Water Clock.

    [4] A new manuscript never used before in all the earlier work done on al-Jazariis MS Orient fol. 3306 preserved at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin; it is descibed in Mohammed Abattouy, "A New Arabic Text of Mechanics: Sinan ibn Thabit on the Theory of Simple Machines", forthcoming.

    [5] See British Library: Supplementary Handlist of Persian Manuscripts, 1966-1998, London: The British Library Publishing, 1998.

    [6] G. Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, 3 vols. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1927-1948, vol.2: p. 510.

    [7] D. R. Hill, Studies in Medieval Islamic Technology, edited by D. A. King, Ashgate, 1998, p. 231.

    [8] Ahmad Yusuf al-Hassan, Al Jazari and the History of the Water Clock.

    [9] Salim al-Hassani, "The Machines of Al-Jazari and Taqi Al-Din". See also this article including a photograph of the Ibn Battuta Mall elephant clock and this page providing information on a page from al-Jazari's manuscript preserved in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

    [10] See the presentation "Clock of Civilisations" by FSTC, 12 September 2007 at York University: click here for the flyer of this presentation and see this general description by Muslim Heritage Consulting: The Elephant Clock.

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