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Al-Jazari (1136-1206)

Abū al-'Iz Ibn Ismā'īl ibn al-Razāz al-Jazarī (1136  – 1206) (Arabic: أَبُو اَلْعِزِ بْنُ إسْماعِيلِ بْنُ الرِّزاز الجزري‎)was a prominent Arab polymath, Islamic mathematician ,scholar, inventor, mechanical engineer, craftsman, artist and astronomer from Al-Jazira, Iraq who lived during the Islamic Golden Age (Middle Ages). He is best known for writing the Kitáb fí ma'rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya (Book in the Knowledge of Engineering Tricks ) in 1206, where he described fifty mechanical devices along with instructions on how to construct them.



Little is known about Al-Jazari, and most of that comes from the introduction to his Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. He was named after the area in which he was born, al-Jazira—the traditional Arabic name for what was northern Mesopotamia and what is now northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria, between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Like his father before him, he served as chief engineer at the Artlu Palace, the residence of the Diyarbakır branch of the Turkish Artuqid dynasty which ruled across eastern Anatolia as vassals of the Zangid rulers of Mosul and later Ayyubid general Saladin.[1]

Al-Jazari was part of a tradition of craftsmen and was thus more of a practical engineer than an inventor [2] who appears to have been "more interested in the craftsmanship necessary to construct the devices than in the technology which lay behind them" and his machines were usually "assembled by trial and error rather than by theoretical calculation."[3] Some of his devices were also inspired by earlier devices, such as one of his monumental water clocks being based on that of a Pseudo-Archimedes.[4]

Mechanisms and methods

While many of al-Jazari's inventions may now appear to be trivial, the most significant aspect of al-Jazari's machines are the mechanisms, components, ideas, methods, and design features which they employ.[1]


The crank mechanism was previously known in Han China and to the Banu Musa brothers, while the crank-connecting rod mechanism was known in Roman Asia. Centuries later, Al-Jazari invented the crankshaft,[5][6] which he incorporated with a crank-connecting rod mechanism in his twin-cylinder pump.[7] Like the modern crankshaft, Al-Jazari's mechanism consisted of a wheel setting several crank pins into motion, with the wheel's motion being circular and the pins moving back-and-forth in a straight line.[5]

The crankshaft described by Al-Jazari transforms continuous rotary motion into a linear reciprocating motion,[7] and is central to modern machinery such as the steam engine, internal combustion engine and automatic controls.[6][8] He used it with a connecting rod in two of his water-raising machines: the crank-driven saqiya chain pump and the double-action reciprocating piston suction pump.[7][9]

Design and construction methods

Donald Routledge Hill writes:

"We see for the first time in al-Jazari's work several concepts important for both design and construction: the lamination of timber to minimize warping, the static balancing of wheels, the use of wooden templates (a kind of pattern), the use of paper models to establish designs, the calibration of orifices, the grinding of the seats and plugs of valves together with emery powder to obtain a watertight fit, and the casting of metals in closed mold boxes with sand."[1]

Escapement mechanism in a rotating wheel

Al-Jazari invented a method for controlling the speed of rotation of a wheel using an escapement mechanism.[10]

Mechanical controls

According to Donald Routledge Hill, al-Jazari described several early mechanical controls, including "a large metal door, a combination lock and a lock with four bolts."[1]

Segmental gear

A segmental gear is "a piece for receiving or communicating reciprocating motion from or to a cogwheel, consisting of a sector of a circular gear, or ring, having cogs on the periphery, or face."[11] Professor Lynn Townsend White, Jr. wrote:

"Segmental gears first clearly appear in Al-Jazari, in the West they emerge in Giovanni de Dondi‘s astronomical clock finished in 1364, and only with the great Sienese engineer Francesco di Giorgio (1501) did they enter the general vocabulary of European machine design."[12]

Water-raising machines

Al-Jazari invented five machines for raising water,[13] as well as watermills and water wheels with cams on their axle used to operate automata,[14] in the 12th and 13th centuries, and described them in 1206. It was in these water-raising machines that he introduced his most important ideas and components.

Saqiya chain pumps

The first known use of a crankshaft in a chain pump was in one of al-Jazari's saqiya machines.[15] The concept of minimizing intermittent working is also first implied in one of al-Jazari's saqiya chain pumps, which was for the purpose of maximising the efficiency of the saqiya chain pump [15] Al-Jazari also constructed a water-raising saqiya chain pump which was run by hydropower rather than manual labour, though the Chinese were also using hydropower for chain pumps prior to him. Saqiya machines like the ones he described have been supplying water in Damascus since the 13th century up until modern times,[16] and were in everyday use throughout the medieval Islamic world.[15]

Double-action suction pump with valves and reciprocating piston motion

In 1206, Al-Jazari described the first suction pipes, suction pump, double-action pump, and made early uses of valves and a crankshaft-connecting rod mechanism, when he invented a twin-cylinder reciprocating piston suction pump. This pump is driven by a water wheel, which drives, through a system of gears, an oscillating slot-rod to which the rods of two pistons are attached. The pistons work in horizontally opposed cylinders, each provided with valve-operated suction and delivery pipes. The delivery pipes are joined above the centre of the machine to form a single outlet into the irrigation system. This may be the only one of al-Jazari's water-raising machines which had a direct significance for the development of modern engineering. This pump is remarkable for three reasons:[1][17][18]

  • The first known use of a true suction pipe (which sucks fluids into a partial vacuum) in a pump.
  • The first application of the double-acting principle.
  • The conversion of rotary to reciprocating motion, via the crank-connecting rod mechanism.

Al-Jazari's suction piston pump could lift 13.6 metres of water, with the help of delivery pipes. This was more advanced than the suction pumps that appeared in 15th-century Europe, which lacked delivery pipes. It was not, however, any more efficient than a noria commonly used by the Muslim world at the time.[18] This pump is also notable for incorporating the only known copy of the Byzantine siphon (used for pumping Greek fire).[19]

Water supply system

Al-Jazari developed the earliest water supply system to be driven by gears and hydropower, which was built in 13th century Damascus to supply water to its mosques and Bimaristan hospitals. The system had water from a lake turn a scoop-wheel and a system of gears which transported jars of water up to a water channel that led to mosques and hospitals in the city.[20][not in citation given]


Al-Jazari built automated moving peacocks driven by hydropower.[21] He also invented the earliest known automatic gates, which were driven by hydropower.[20] He also created automatic doors as part of one of his elaborate water clocks.[1] Al-Jazari also designed and constructed a number of other automata, including automatic machines, home appliances, and musical automata powered by water.[22] Al-Jazari also invented water wheels with cams on their axle used to operate automata.[14]

Mark E. Rosheim summarizes the advances in robotics made by Arab engineers, especially Al-Jazari, as follows:

"Unlike the Greek designs, these Arab examples reveal an interest, not only in dramatic illusion, but in manipulating the environment for human comfort. Thus, the greatest contribution the Arabs made, besides preserving, disseminating and building on the work of the Greeks, was the concept of practical application. This was the key element that was missing in Greek robotic science."[23]

"The Arabs, on the other hand, displayed an interest in creating human-like machines for practical purposes but lacked, like other preindustrial societies, any real impetus to pursue their robotic science."[24]

Drink-serving waitress

One of Al-Jazari's humanoid automata was a waitress that could serve water, tea or drinks. The drink was stored in a tank with a reservoir from where the drink drips into a bucket and, after seven minutes, into a cup, after which the waitress appears out of an automatic door serving the drink.[25]

Hand-washing automaton with flush mechanism

Al-Jazari invented a hand washing automaton incorporating a flush mechanism now used in modern flush toilets. It features a female humanoid automaton standing by a basin filled with water. When the user pulls the lever, the water drains and the female automaton refills the basin.[26]

Peacock fountain with automated servants

Al-Jazari's "peacock fountain" was a more sophisticated hand washing device featuring humanoid automata as servants which offer soap and towels. Mark E. Rosheim describes it as follows:[23]

"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 linkage which makes a servant figure appear from behind a door under the peacock and offer soap. When more water is used, a second float at a higher level trips and causes the appearance of a second servant figure — with a towel!"

Musical robot band

Al-Jazari's musical robot band.

Al-Jazari's work described fountains and musical automata, in which the flow of water alternated from one large tank to another at hourly or half-hourly intervals. This operation was achieved through his innovative use of hydraulic switching.[1]

Al-Jazari created a musical automaton, which was a boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal drinking parties. Professor Noel Sharkey has argued that it is quite likely that it was an early programmable automata and has produced a possible reconstruction of the mechanism; it has a programmable drum machine with pegs (cams) that bump into little levers that operated the percussion. The drummer could be made to play different rhythms and different drum patterns if the pegs were moved around.[27] According to Charles B. Fowler, the automata were a "robot band" which performed "more than fifty facial and body actions during each musical selection."[28]


Al-Jazari constructed a variety of water clocks and candle clocks. These included a portable water-powered scribe clock, which was a meter high and half a meter wide, reconstructed successfully at the Science Museum (London) in 1976 [14][29] Al-Jazari also invented monumental water-powered astronomical clocks which displayed moving models of the Sun, Moon, and stars.

Candle clocks

According to Donald Routledge Hill, al-Jazari described the most sophisticated candle clocks known to date. Hill described one of al-Jazari's candle clocks as follows:[1]

"The candle, whose rate of burning was known, bore against the underside of the cap, and its wick passed through the hole. Wax collected in the indentation and could be removed periodically so that it did not interfere with steady burning. The bottom of the candle rested in a shallow dish that had a ring on its side connected through pulleys to a counterweight. As the candle burned away, the weight pushed it upward at a constant speed. The automata were operated from the dish at the bottom of the candle. No other candle clocks of this sophistication are known."

Al-Jazari's candle clock also included a dial to display the time and, for the first time, employed a bayonet fitting, a fastening mechanism still used in modern times.[30]

Elephant clock

The elephant clock was described by Al-Jazari in 1206 is notable for several innovations. It was the first clock in which an automaton reacted after certain intervals of time (in this case, a humanoid robot striking the cymbal and a mechanical robotic bird chirping) and the first water clock to accurately record the passage of the temporal hours to match the uneven length of days throughout the year.[31]

Programmable castle clock

Al-Jazari's largest astronomical clock was the "castle clock", which is considered to be the first programmable analog computer.[32] It was a complex device that was about 11 feet (3.4 m) high, and had multiple functions besides timekeeping. It included a display of the zodiac and the solar and lunar orbits, and an innovative feature of the device was a pointer in the shape of the crescent moon which travelled across the top of a gateway, moved by a hidden cart, and caused automatic doors to open, each revealing a mannequin, every hour.[1][33] Another innovative feature was the variable ability to re-program the length of day and night everyday in order to account for the changing lengths of day and night throughout the year. Yet another innovative feature of the device was five robotic musicians who automatically play music when moved by levers operated by a hidden camshaft attached to a water wheel.[32] Other components of the castle clock included a main reservoir with a float, a float chamber and flow regulator, plate and valve trough, two pulleys, crescent disc displaying the zodiac, and two falcon automata dropping balls into vases.[34]

Weight-driven water clocks

Al-Jazari invented water clocks that were driven by both water and weights. These included geared clocks and a portable water-powered scribe clock, which was a meter high and half a meter wide. The scribe with his pen was synonymous to the hour hand of a modern clock.[14][29] Al-Jazari's famous water-powered scribe clock was reconstructed successfully at the Science Museum (London) in 1976.

Miniature paintings

Alongside his accomplishments as an inventor and engineer, al-Jazari was also an accomplished artist. In The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, he gave instructions of his inventions and illustrated them using miniature paintings, a medieval style of Islamic art.


  • Banū Mūsā
  • Hero of Alexandria
  • History of the internal combustion engine
  • Inventions in the Muslim world
  • Islamic Golden Age
  • Islamic science
  • List of Arab scientists and scholars
  • Muslim Agricultural Revolution
  • Taqi al-Din


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Donald Routledge Hill, "Mechanical Engineering in the Medieval Near East", Scientific American, May 1991, pp. 64-9 (cf. Donald Routledge Hill, Mechanical Engineering)
  2. ^ Donald R. Hill, Dictionary of scientific biography 15, suppl I, p254
  3. ^ Tibbetts, G. R. (1975), "Review: Donald R. Hill, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (Kitab fi ma'rifat al-hiyal alhandasiyya), by Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) 38 (1): 151–153 [152] 
  4. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan, Al-Jazari And the History of the Water Clock
  5. ^ a b Sally Ganchy, Sarah Gancher (2009), Islam and Science, Medicine, and Technology, The Rosen Publishing Group, p. 47, ISBN 1435850661 
  6. ^ a b Paul Vallely, How Islamic Inventors Changed the World, The Independent, 11 March 2006.
  7. ^ a b c Ahmad Y Hassan, The Crank-Connecting Rod System in a Continuously Rotating Machine
  8. ^ Donald Routledge Hill (1998). Studies in Medieval Islamic Technology II, p. 231-232.
  9. ^ A. F. L. Beeston, M. J. L. Young, J. D. Latham, Robert Bertram Serjeant (1990), The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, Cambridge University Press, pp. 270–1, ISBN 0521327636 
  10. ^ Donald Routledge Hill, "Engineering", in Roshdi Rashed, ed., Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, Vol. 2, p. 751-795 [792]. Routledge, London and New York.
  11. ^ Segment gear,
  12. ^ The Automata of Al-Jazari. The Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul.
  13. ^ Al-Jazari, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices: Kitáb fí ma'rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya, translated by P. Hill (1973), Springer Science+Business Media.
  14. ^ a b c d Donald Routledge Hill (1996), A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times, Routledge, p. 224
  15. ^ a b c Donald Routledge Hill, "Engineering", in Roshdi Rashed, ed., Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, Vol. 2, p. 751-795 [776]. Routledge, London and New York.
  16. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan, Al-Jazari and the History of the Water Clock
  17. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan. "The Origin of the Suction Pump: Al-Jazari 1206 A.D.". Retrieved 2008-07-16. 
  18. ^ a b Donald Routledge Hill (1996), A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times, Routledge, pp. 143 & 150-2
  19. ^ A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times: Irrigation and water supply ; Dams ; Bridges ; Roads ; Building construction ; Surveying Part two, Mechanical engineering : Water-raising machines ; Power from water and wind Part three, Fine technology : Instruments ; Automata ; Clocks ... By Donald Routledge Hill Published by Routledge, 1996 ISBN 0415152917, 9780415152914 263 pages
  20. ^ a b Howard R. Turner (1997), Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction, p. 181, University of Texas Press, ISBN 0292781490
  21. ^ al-Jazari (Islamic artist), Encyclopædia Britannica.
  22. ^ See one of his works at The Automata of Al-Jazari.
  23. ^ a b Rosheim, Mark E. (1994), Robot Evolution: The Development of Anthrobotics, Wiley-IEEE, p. 9, ISBN 0471026220 
  24. ^ Rosheim, Mark E. (1994), Robot Evolution: The Development of Anthrobotics, Wiley-IEEE, p. 36, ISBN 0471026220 
  25. ^ Ancient Discoveries, Episode 12: Machines of the East, History Channel,, retrieved 2008-09-06 
  26. ^ Rosheim, Mark E. (1994), Robot Evolution: The Development of Anthrobotics, Wiley-IEEE, pp. 9–10, ISBN 0471026220 
  27. ^ Professor Noel Sharkey, A 13th Century Programmable Robot, University of Sheffield.
  28. ^ Fowler, Charles B. (October 1967), "The Museum of Music: A History of Mechanical Instruments", Music Educators Journal 54 (2): 45–49, doi:10.2307/3391092 
  29. ^ a b Ibn al-Razzaz Al-Jazari (ed. 1974) The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, Translated and annotated by Donald Routledge Hill, Dordrecht / D. Reidel, part II.
  30. ^ Ancient Discoveries, Episode 12: Machines of the East, History Channel,, retrieved 2008-09-07 
  31. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan; Donald Routledge Hill (1986), Islamic Technology: An Illustrated History, Cambridge University Press, p. 57-59, ISBN 0521263336 
  32. ^ a b Ancient Discoveries, Episode 11: Ancient Robots, History Channel,, retrieved 2008-09-06 
  33. ^ Howard R. Turner (1997), Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction, p. 184. University of Texas Press, ISBN 0292781490.
  34. ^ Salim Al-Hassani (13 March 2008). "How it Works: Mechanism of the Castle Clock". FSTC. Retrieved 2008-09-06. 


  • Al-Jazarí, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices: Kitáb fí ma'rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya, Springer, 1973 edition.[1]
  • Hill, Donald Routledge, A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times, 1996.[2]

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