By Elmira Akhmetova
The term ‘Robot’ was first used to denote a fictional humanoid in a 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) written by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek. It was his brother, Josef Čapek invented the word ‘Robot’.
Two names of modern scientists, William Grey Walter and George Devol, are celebrated today as the founders of robotics. In 1948, the first electronic robots, named Elmer and Elsie, were created by Walter in England. In 1954, George Devol invented the first digital and programmable robot and named it Unimate. It was sold to General Motors where was used to lift pieces of hot metal from the die casting machines.
An interest in creating helpful devices for humans’ daily lives and for entertainment in the palaces began at very early stages of human civilization. The 20th century engineers Walter and Devol just continued this long-lasting idea and enhanced it significantly by making robots available for mass industry.
Engineers and inventors in ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Greek and Indian civilizations attempted to build self-operating machines, mainly resembling humans or animals/birds.
Yet, the person who enhanced the robotic engineering radically was Badi Az-Zaman Ismail Al-Jazari, a Muslim scientist, polymath, mathematician, mechanical engineer, inventor and artisan. Al-Jazari was born in 1136 and, like his father before him, served as chief engineer at the Artuklu Palace of a Turkish dynasty of Artukids who ruled in Eastern Anatolia and Jazira in the 12th and 13th centuries.
It was in this palace, surrounded by gardens, rich in amenities and in artistic and decorative elements, Al-Jazari served for 30 years and there became inspired for his countless inventions.[i] In 1206, he completed an outstanding work on engineering in Arabic, entitled “Al-Jami’ Bayn Al-‘Ilm wa Al-‘Amal Al-Nafi’ fi Sina’at al-Hiyal” (Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices). This comprehensive anthology of theoretical and practical mechanics describes various devices with many detailed illustrations, providing an invaluable contribution in the history of engineering and robotics. George Sarton estimated that “This treatise is the most elaborate of its kind and may be considered the climax of this line of Muslim achievement.”[ii]
In this book, Al-Jazari described fifty mechanical devices, including different types of clocks, hand washing device (Wudhu’ machine) and machines for raising water. Al-Jazari invented camshaft, a shaft to which cams are attached, a device which appeared in European mechanisms only in the 14th century.
His other significant inventions include segmental gear, crankshaft and crank-slider mechanism, and escapement mechanism in rotating wheel to control the speed of rotation. These devices made a tremendous shift in the field of automata. Al-Jazari built several types of automata like automated moving peacocks driven by hydropower, different types of automatic clocks and earliest humanoid robots.
One of the Al-Jazari’s humanoid automata was a waitress that could serve tea, water or drinks. The drink was stored in a tank with a reservoir from where the drink drips into a vessel and, after seven minutes, into a cup, after which the waitress appears out of automatic door serving the drink.[iii]
He also invented hand washing automation incorporating a flush mechanism which is used in modern flush toilets. It presents a female humanoid automation standing by a basin filled with water. Then when the user pulls the lever, the water drains and the female automation refills the basin again.[iv]
Al-Jazari also created a musical robot band, which was a boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal parties.
Another invention of Al-Jazari, the elephant clock was the first clock in which an automaton reacted after certain intervals of time: a humanoid robot striking the cymbal and the mechanical robotic bird chirping. It is worthy to note that this water clock in the shape of Asian Indian elephant represented the earliest example of multiculturalism represented in technology.
Al-Jazari also made a robotic man for the sultan. This robot, modelled on a 12-year old boy, provided water, a towel and a comb for the sultan during his ablutions.
Al-Jazari’s largest astronomical clock was a ‘Castle Clock’, a complex device 3.4 meters height. Besides timekeeping, it had multiple functions, including 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 crescent moon, which travels across the top of a gateway, moved by a hidden cart, and caused automatic doors open every hour. It also had a device of five automata musicians who automatically play music when moved by levers operated by a hidden camshaft attached to a water wheel.
In 1974, British charter engineer and historian of Islamic technology, Donald R. Hill translated Al-Jazari’s book into English. Hill suggests that the technology of making modern day robotics were influenced by the ideas of Al-Jazari. He believes in transmission of Islamic fine technology into Europe through Muslim Spain or even it could happen through Sicily, Southern France, Italy, Byzantium and Syria during the Crusades.[v]
Accordingly, the foundations for Devol’s Unimate and Walter’s Elmer were laid down much earlier, during the rise of Islamic Civilization, by a palace engineer, Al-Jazari.
[ii] George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, 1927, vol. 2, p. 510.
[iv] Mark Rosheim, Robot Evolution: The Development of Anthrobotics, (Wiley-IEEE, 1994), pp. 9–10.
[v] Donald Hill, A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times, (London: Croom Helm & La Salle, Illinois: Open Court), 1984.