From water pumps to musical automatons, Ismail al-Jazari’s extraordinary machines ranged from practical to playful, delighting farmers and kings alike.
Fountains that could be programmed to switch on and off. A model of an Indian mahout (driver) who struck the half hour on his elephant’s head. Automatons in the form of servants that could offer guests a towel.
These are just some of the marvellous creations of the 12th-century Muslim inventor Ismail al-Jazari, who laid the groundwork for modern engineering, hydraulics, and even robotics. While some of his lavish and colourful creations were made as novelty playthings for the very wealthy, al-Jazari also made practical machines that helped normal people, including water-drawing devices that were used by farmers for centuries.
Passion for invention
Badi al-Zaman Abu al-Izz Ismail ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari was born in 1136 in Diyarbakır in what is today central-southern Turkey. The son of a humble craftsman, he was born in a time of political turmoil, a result of local power struggles as well as the effects of the Crusades.
Al-Jazari served as an engineer in the service of the regional rulers, the Artuqids. This dynasty had once expanded its empire into Syria. In the course of al-Jazari’s lifetime, however, Artuqid power came under the sway of the more powerful neighboring Zangid dynasty, and later still by the successors of the Muslim hero, Saladin. (Here’s why the “Assassins” were sent to kill Saladin.)
Despite the upheaval of the Crusades, and the turbulent relations between different Muslim powers, life for the brilliant engineer was peacefully spent serving several Artuqid kings, for whom he designed more than a hundred ingenious devices. Unlike other practical inventors of the period, who left little record of their work, al-Jazari had a passion for documenting his work and explaining how he built his incredible machines.
In 1206, drawing on a quarter of a century of prodigious output, he gave the world a catalogue of his “matchless machines,” which is known today as The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Al-Jazari included meticulous diagrams and colourful illustrations to show how all the pieces fit together. Several incomplete copies of his work have survived, including one held by the Topkapi Sarayi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, prized for its artistic detail and beauty.