Medieval robots? They were just one of this Muslim inventor's creations

From water pumps to musical automatons, Ismail al-Jazari's extraordinary machines ranged from practical to playful, delighting farmers and kings alike.

A miniature from al-Jazari’s Book of Knowledge depicts a water-powered flautist automation that he described as a playful “alarm clock,” designed to deliver a gentle tone to wake someone from a nap. Topkapi Sarayi Museum, Istanbul.
BRIDGEMAN/ACI

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 marvelous inventions 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 colorful 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.

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.

Read This Next

These are the best compact cameras for travelers in 2022
Dramatic photos show La Palma volcano’s ongoing eruption
How to have a COVID-safe Thanksgiving gathering

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet