Science in a Golden Age

Pioneers of Engineering: Al-Jazari and the Banu Musa

We trace the path from modern technology back to the scientists who developed robots, water pumps and trick mechanisms.

The Industrial Revolution was a major turning point in world history, shaping modern behaviour and every other aspect of human life.

The introduction of machines in the 17th century, often powered by water or steam, revolutionised food production, medicine, housing, and clothing.

In this episode of Science in a Golden Agetheoretical physicist, Jim al-Khalili examines the intricate automatic devices from the Islamic world, which paved the way for Europe’s industrial revolution some 800 years later.

Jim starts his journey at the cutting edge of modern automation – a robotic kitchen that can be programmed to produce a number of dishes according to fixed recipes. Jim finds interesting parallels to this example of modern engineering in the Kitab al-Hiyal (The Book of Tricks) written by the three Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century.

We get a glimpse of the diagrams and descriptions of complex mechanisms, water dispensing vessels and entertainment devices, as Jim recreates one of the Banu Musa brothers’ most famous inventions – a ‘flute that plays itself’.

We also explore the works of Turkish engineer Al-Jazari by looking at working models of water devices, including a sophisticated water pump for supplying water to homes and farms.

Engineering Professor Atilla Bir shows us Al-Jazari’s elaborate and ornate elephant clock, which used complicated mechanisms to tell the time and create impressive visual displays. The design of this clock was included in Al-Jazari’s beautifully illustrated text – Kitab fi marifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices), a copy of which is held at the Suleymaniye Library in Istanbul.

Finally Jim consults pilot and mathematician Andy Green, to investigate one of the most outlandish claims of the Golden Age – the story that Abbas Ibn Firnas, an inventor from Andalusia in Islamic Spain, built himself wings and took to the skies.