Al-Jazari: the father of robotics

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Al Jazari's hand washing automaton
Image from Wikipedia

Science fiction films are full of humanoid robots acting as servants, workers, friends or colleagues. The first were created during the Islamic Golden Age, a thousand years ago. 

Robots and automata have been the subject of science fiction for over a century, but their history in myth goes back millennia, but so does the actual building of lifelike animated machines. The Ancient Greeks and Egyptians built Automata, animal or human-like contraptions that seemed to come to life. The early automata were illusions that did not have a practical use, though, aside from entertainment or just to amaze people. 

It was the great inventor of mechanical gadgets Ismail Al-Jazari from the Islamic Golden Age of science, engineering and art in the 12th century, who first built robot-like machines with actual purposes. Powered by water, his automata acted as servants doing specific tasks. One machine was a humanoid automaton that acted as a servant during the ritual purification of hand washing before saying prayers. It poured water into a basin from a jug and then handed over a towel, mirror and comb. It used a toilet style flushing mechanism to deliver the water from a tank. Other inventions included a waitress automaton that served drinks and robotic musicians that played instruments from a boat. It may even have been programmable. 

We know about Al-Jazari’s machines because he not only created mechanical gadgets and automata, he also wrote a book about them: The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. It’s possible that it inspired Leonardo Da Vinci who, in addition to being a famous painter of the Italian Renaissance, was a prolific inventor of machines. 

Such “robots” were not everyday machines. The hand washing automata was made for the King. Al-Jazari’s book, however, didn’t just describe the machines, it explained how to build them: possibly the first text book to cover Automata. If you weren’t a King, then perhaps you could, at least, have a go at making your own servants. 

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EPSRC supports this blog through research grant EP/W033615/1. 

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