Died At Age: 70
Also Known As: Badīʿ az-Zaman Abū l-ʿIzz ibn Ismāʿīl ibn ar-Razāz al-Jazarī
Born in: Cizre
Famous as: Polymath
Died on: 1206
Who was Ismail al-Jazari?
Ismail al-Jazari was a Muslim polymath. He was an inventor, a scholar, a mathematician, an engineer, an artisan, and an artist. In his book ‘The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices,’ he had mentioned about numerous mechanical devices and had provided instructions on how to construct them. He was known as somebody who was ahead of his time. Historians and researchers were surprised by the knowledge of modern science mechanisms he possessed, even about 800 years ago. Born and raised in Cizre in the Artuqid State, he traveled a lot to quench his thirst for knowledge. He roamed around Mecca, Medina, and Alexandria, to learn science. Upon his return, he served the kings of Diyarbakir, as a mechanical engineer, for many decades. Some of the most significant inventions that have been credited to him are suction pumps, the water supply system, musical robot bands, and automated clocks. He was also an accomplished painter. A lot of his personal life has not been documented in history books, and people know about him mostly through his book.
Childhood & Early Life
Ismail al-Jazari was born Badīʿ az-Zaman Abū l-ʿIzz ibn Ismāʿīl ibn ar-Razāz al-Jazarī, in Cizre, modern-day Turkey, in 1136 CE, during the pinnacle of the Islamic “golden age.” Back then, the Islamic empire was spreading across the Middle Eastern, African, and Western Asian regions. A scientific revolution was also on the rise. Ismail’s father happened to be an ace mechanical engineer, who worked for the Artuqid kings of the Turkmen dynasty, in Diyarbakir, modern-day Turkey and Iraq.
His father was a merchant and was childless at the age of 40. It was said that his father embarked on the Hajj pilgrimage to the holy lands of Mecca and Medina to pray for a child. A few years later, Ismail was born. His father served the royals of Diyarbakir and worked as a merchant, too. Ismail learned all the verses of the ‘Quran’ by the time he was 13 years old. He made visits to Mecca, Medina, Cairo, and Alexandria, and returned as an accomplished scholar in the ‘Quran’ sciences.
Records state that Ismail had served three rulers in his lifetime, namely, Nur al-Din Muhammad ibn Arslan, Qutb al-Din Sukman ibn Muhammad, and Nasir al-Din Mahmud ibn-Muhammad. It was on the request of Nasir al-Din that Ismail decided to pen his great book. Historical records also state that Ismail began serving at the royal court somewhere around the year 1174. He served for 25 years before he started writing his book.
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In the book ‘The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices,’ Ismail put down his entire life’s work: the mechanisms he invented, going through multiple trials and errors, and how they were constructed. The book features close to a hundred devices with multiple purposes. A common thread among them was the intricate level of skills and the number of trials and errors that were behind their construction. Several of the ideas that Ismail employed were later used by modern inventors to accomplish their mechanical inventions.
Ismail drew inspiration from the works of inventors before him, especially Archimedes, and provided some improvements to their designs to make perfectly working machines. In his book, he provided detailed descriptions through text, dimensions, and sketches, which would enable any skilled mechanic to build machines from scratch.
Among the biggest of his inventions was a camshaft, a shaft to attach cams. The invention arrived in the European empire in the 14th century. He also presented different types of clocks, water-raising devices, and hand-washing devices. A few other key inventions were a segmental gear, the crank-slider mechanism, and the escapement mechanism in rotating wheels that helped tremendously in controlling the speed of wheel’s rotation.
Ismail also worked immensely in the field of automata and designed the first-ever humanoid robots, automatic clocks, and automated peacocks. One of the robots that Ismail made could serve drinks, make tea, and serve clean water. A reservoir was attached to a tank in which the drinks were stored, and the drinks then dripped into a cup through a vessel. The humanoid waitress then served the drinks.
Modern flush toilets also bore striking similarities to the hand-washing machines designed by Ismail. His book shows a humanoid automation standing by a basin filled with water. When the user pulls a lever, the water gets drained and the basin gets filled automatically with fresh water.
One of the most advanced of his achievements was the invention of an automated music band. The book shows four robots sitting in a boat, with different musical instruments that they were to play in sync with each other. It is assumed they were meant to entertain guests.
The automated clock mentioned in his book is also one of his most famous inventions. The clock he mentioned was the first clock in the world that signaled at a particular interval of time. The mechanism is used as an alarm clock these days. The book also mentioned a mechanical chirping robot bird. Another notable feature of the automated clocks was that most of them were shaped as the Indian elephant. This was a great example of technological multi-culturalism.
A robotic servant was made for the sultan. The robot took care of mundane activities, such as serving water, combs, and towels. Ismail further exhibited his astronomical prowess by building a massive “castle clock.” It was a 3.4-meter-high clock that displayed the positions of the lunar and the solar orbits. The device had several other innovative features, such as a mechanism to open automated doors every hour.
The clock was also connected with five automated robot musicians that responded on the lever, which in turn was operated by a water wheel attached to a hidden camshaft.
Due to such milestone inventions, Ismail al-Jazari has made a significant place in history. His book was translated to English in 1974, by Donald R. Hill, a British engineer and historian who had studied Islamic history and technology extensively. Hill stated that the technology used by Ismail in making his robots had served as the biggest inspiration for modern-day robotics.
Most of Ismail’s inventions made their way into medieval Europe through Byzantium, Sicily, Italy, and France, during the Muslim crusades. Leonardo da Vinci may have referred to several of Ismail’s mechanisms to come up with his very own inventions.
The book ‘The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices’ was published to a wider reader base in 1206, which is also said to be the year of Ismail’s death.
Ismail was from a family of craftsmen. Hence, he was not too concerned about the technological aspects of his designs. He cared more about the craftsmanship behind those inventions. The book was written in a style that resembles the modern-day “do-it-yourself” books.