What a wonderful thing is knowledge, and while the Sultanate is absolutely and correctly celebrating the launch of its very first laptop, the Onsor, this month, and the public debut of several new entrepreneurial ventures through the Ministry of Transport, Communications and Information Technology’s (MTCIT), second Sas Accelerator program, it is perhaps a good time to reflect on the stunning achievements of a somewhat earlier scholar, inventor and engineer.
Born in Jazira, where in ancient Mesopotamia, the Asian and Arabic civilizations merge, in 1136AD, Badi Az Zaman Abu Il Izz Ibn Ismael Al Raza Al Jazari, is not widely known outside the Arabic world, yet as an artist, scholar, mathematician, engineer, inventor, and the most cultured of artisans, he surely ranks with Imhotep of the Pyramids, Archimedes the observer of Syracuse, the inventor of paper, the China’s Cai Lun, the steam engineer Heron of Alexandria, and the immaculate Leonardo da Vinci, in the pantheon of global inventors who have changed the world.
Shortly before he died in 1206AD, Al Jazari published his amazing volume of inventions entitled ‘The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices,’ and in it lie the details of many of today’s most commonplace discoveries and inventions. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that every day, everywhere in the world, everyone’s daily life is impacted, and their quality of life enriched in some way or ways, by this remarkable polymath.
Donald Hill, of the University of London wrote at length of Al Jazari, seeing him as incredibly practical, and remarkably honest, as every single machine or process referred to in the book was constructed by him, so proven. He was also able to identify the differences between his own developments compared to those who worked on similar projects in the past, explaining very clearly the innovations he had wrought and their different technical aspects compared to those who may have had an idea in the past, but were not able to make them work. Al Jazari quite simply, made things work!
Principles that emerge frequently in his work are of automations, hydraulics, clock mechanisms, and crankshafts. His crankshaft was the first to transform a rotary, or circular motion into the linear power train known today as the piston engine, the basis of every pump and motor used today. Hill wrote that in this one invention featured a myriad of astounding concepts that remain the realm of modern day design and construction including the static balancing of rotary motion, timber laminates to reduce warping, precision engineering using emery powder, sandbox metal casting, paper patterns and wooden templates.
His water pumps were the first to use the double-action, reciprocating method to lift water, for centuries the only alternative to gravity-fed systems, while many of the same systems carried over into Al Jazari’s true passion of automata, or the first robotics. His clever works included a hydraulic musical robot band, a drinks serving waitress, a peacock styled fountain, and a hand-washing machine with a flush mechanism, that inspired today’s childishly simple… flush toilet.
Writing in ‘Robot Evolution: The Development of Arthrobotics,’ Mark E Rosheim wrote of that invention, in wonder, not whimsy, “Pulling a plug on the peacock’s tail releases water out of the beak; as the dirty water from the basin fills the hollow base a float rises and actuates a link which makes a servant figure appear from behind a door under the peacock and offer soap. When more water is used, a second, higher float trips, and causes the appearance of a second servant figure – with a towel!” Amazing!
Even the worthy Encyclopedia Britannica has published that, “The Renaissance inventor Leonardo da Vinci was influenced by the classic automata of Al Jazari. Fascinated too with time and levers, he constructed a combination lock, and numerous mechanical and hydraulic clocks, and while Giovanni de Dondi is credited with the magnificent Prague Astronomical Clock, it is Al Jazari’s work that made it work as again, this practical genius found solutions to centuries-old problems.
The nature of the Arab, their reticence, and their preference for shunning the ‘limelight,’ must be addressed as cultural qualities of yesteryear, or, like the genius that Badi Az Zaman Abu Il Izz Ibn Ismael Al Raza Al Jazari was blessed with, their deeds will be consigned to mediocrity. The young Omani entrepreneurs of today must echo loud and long, their triumphs and innovations.