There were many great scientists that lived during the Islamic golden age. Nevertheless Al Jazari and Banu Musa brothers are usually mentioned when talking about achievements in automation and its control.
At the beginning, I would like to talk a bit about the Islamic golden age itself. Traditionally this designation is used to talk about a time span between 7th and 13th centuries CE. At that time the importance of knowledge was accented in the Islamic society.
To ensure the translation and preservation of works from ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks, an institute called The House of Wisdom was created. Initially scholars translated Persian texts to Arabic. Later, works from all over the world were translated to Arabic, forming a great collection of knowledge.
Islamic scholars then could use this vast quantity of knowledge for their research. And so they did. Islamic scholars built upon the work of ancient civilizations adding their own ideas and concepts, thus pushing the development further in many fields such as astronomy, medicine, engineering, physics and others.
Did they build robots? Yes, one could say so. Amongst other marvelous mechanical engineering creations, automated devices were made as well. The most known scholars that worked in this field were Al Jazari and Banu Musa brothers.
Banu Musa brothers
I’ll start with Banu Musa brothers rather than Al Jazari because they lived earlier. Banu Musa brothers lived in Baghdad in 9th century and worked in the above mentioned library – the house of wisdom. They had an exceptional education if compared to other people of that time.
Although each of the brothers specialized in different fields, all three of them were interested in engineering as well. Together they wrote a book on this topic. The book was called ”The Book of Ingenious Devices” or Kitab al-Hiyal.
Around one hundred devices were described in this book. Some of them were credited to earlier authors such as Hero of Alexandria and others; some was invented purely by Banu Musa brothers themselves. The book was commissioned by the Caliph of Baghdad of the time – Abu Ja’far Al-Mamun ibn Harun.
Amongst other notable inventions, such as the first mechanical musical instrument, automatons and automatic control devices were also covered in the book. The most notable automaton mentioned in the book is an automated flute player. Also various control methods and systems are discussed there.
Three centuries after Banu Musa brothers a scholar named Al Jazari lived. He served as an engineer at the Artuklu palace. As Banu Musa brothers before him,he also wrote a book describing various mechanical devices. Instructions on construction were also included in his book.
The book I’m talking about was called “the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices”. In this book there was fifty devices described along with practical instructions on their construction and use. Amongst these devices numerous automata were also described.
Al-Jazari also built upon works of previous scholars such as Banu Musa brothers, Hero of Alexandria and others. By adding his own insights and using inventions of previous scholars, he was able to come up with ingenious devices and solutions.
Amongst his inventions, there is an automatic boat with four programmable musicians. He also invented other automata, such as an automatic hand washing device with human figures offering soap and a towel in the correct time.
If you are interested in this scholar’s work, I highly recommend you to read this paper.
If your browser supports pdf’s you can click on the link. If it doesn’t work that way you can try to “right click” and “save as” it.
The main idea? Medieval Islamic scholars continued the work of ancient civilizations in many fields. One of them – automation. Today we have attested information that Banu Musa brothers and Al Jazari knew how to build automata. Nevertheless, I’m sure that other engineers of the time also were aware of these methods. Only, they didn’t write a book on it.