Nothing makes us think of the future like robots. From Terminator to Star Wars, robots are synonymous with high technology, a future world in which our science is so advanced that we can create artificial life. But while the word “robot” entered the English language in 1920, with the translation of Czech writer Karel Capek’s science-fiction play, R.U.R., the first robots weren’t products of modern engineering. While legends about mechanical human beings go back to the days of ancient Greece, the first real, working robots may have appeared over eight-hundred years ago, imagined and produced by one of the greatest minds in human history, Ismail Al-Jazari.
Born in 1136 in Cizre, Turkey, we know very little of his life. While he wrote in Arabic, he may have been of at least partial Persian descent. Al-Jazari served as chief engineer for several different Turkish rulers and was the son of a merchant, but we don’t even definitively know the date of his death. After 1206, with the publication of his opus, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, he vanishes from history. But as sparse as Al-Jazari’s biography may be, the Book remains a testament to his genius as an engineer and inventor. Reminiscent of Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbooks, Al-Jazari’s work appeared nearly two and a half centuries before Da Vinci’s birth.
The Book is written in the form of a practical instruction guide aimed at those who wish to reproduce Al-Jazari’s devices. By pioneering moving parts like the camshaft and crankshaft, as well as cultivating an intimate understanding of hydraulics, Al-Jazari was able to create a host of devices whose sophistication would not be matched outside the Islamic world for centuries.
Many of these instruments were designed to better move and provide access to water, including hydraulically-powered wells. A system of gear-operated pumps he designed was used to pipe fresh water into the hospitals and mosques of Damascus. His sophisticated plumbing systems, employing pistons and suction, were more complex than any that had appeared before, pioneering moving parts that operate much like modern flush toilets.
Al-Jazari also designed a number of clocks, most famously the “elephant clock,” so-called because it was built to resemble an elephant with a mahout (driver) on its back. Like most of Al-Jazari’s devices, it was operated by the movement of water and weights, with time being measured by the slow filling of an internal bowl, which would ultimately set off a cymbal to announce the hour. In principle, it worked much like one of the later cuckoo clocks, and its design even includes a singing bird. The clock seems to have been functional, too; a working replica was built recently in Dubai. Al-Jazari may also have designed the first clocktower, which not only kept track of the hours of the day but also the dominant sign of the zodiac. Even more impressively, the clock was programmable and could be adjusted with seasonal changes in light.
But Al-Jazari’s most interesting—and mysterious—inventions were undoubtedly his automatons, which seem almost like science fiction among the impressive but more mundane pumps and clocks that appear in the rest of the book. Hydraulically-powered, these “robots” existed to perform limited but complex functions. An automatic waitress he designed was made to serve drinks, appearing every seven minutes upon the filling of a vessel inside the machine with a full cup. The waitress could serve cold or hot liquids and be used for both tea and juice.
In the cleanly world of the medieval Middle East, Al-Jazari also designed a series of automated sinks. One of these, designed to resemble a peacock, used a sophisticated system of floats to not only dispense water, but provide soap and clean towels as well. More striking still are the robotic musical instruments. One of Al-Jazari’s prototypes was a water-powered flute that could play indefinitely, but this was ultimately improved into a band of mechanical musicians, including flutists and drummers. Strong evidence exists that the robotic band could be programmed to play a variety of different songs, and it seems to have been designed to amuse Al-Jazari’s royal patrons.
Al-Jazari’s influence spread slowly but definitely from the Middle East. While the Mongol invasions of the late 1200s effectively ended the world of Classical Islam that produced Al-Jazari, multiple copies of The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices survived, eventually being translated into Latin, wherein they would inspire generations of European engineers. To this day, we rely on moving parts and mechanical principles first designed and discovered by this brilliant medieval inventor. Ismail Al-Jazari’s understanding was groundbreaking; he was one of those rare scientists, like Da Vinci or Nicola Tesla, capable of looking beyond society as he saw it to push technology to heights previously unimagined by those around him. While we know little of him or his life, his influence has been great enough that modern engineers have dubbed him “the father of robotics.”