Pioneers of Engineering: Al-Jazari and the Banu Musa


27 Oct 2015

History of Science

Jim al-Khalili

Jim al-Khalili, a Baghdad-born British theoretical physicist, looks at inventions from a period he describes as “a Golden Age of science”, the ninth to fourteenth centuries.  This  25-minute episode contrasts cooking with robotic arms in 21st century Britain to machines designed in the 9th century.

The premodern material he examines includes that of the Banū Mūsā brothers, who lived and worked in Baghdad.  He looks at an early copy of their book, Kitāb al-Ḥiyal or “Book of Tricks” at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.  He and the curator, William Greenwood, discuss the ways that the “executive toys” described in the book were both innovative and part of traditions going back to earlier civilizations, such as the Greeks.

Al-Khalili then meets with John Scott back in the UK to build one of the inventions, a water-powered flute.

The next stop is at Istanbul’s Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam, where Dr. Detlev Quintern  discusses some of the water-lifting machines designed by al-Jazari (d. after 1206).  One of the pumping systems described by al-Jazari includes a crank slider, which has become “a fundamental component of many modern machines, including car engines.”

Al-Khalili visits another book of al-Jazari’s and examines more closely a diagram of a system to raise water that seems to be powered by the water’s own kinetic energy.  He then describes al-Jazari’s famous elephant clock.

The closing section of the video addresses claims about flight by Abbas ibn Furnas (810-887 CE).  Andy Green, the Royal Air Force pilot who appeared in episode 3 of this series, returns to discuss whether it is possible that Ibn Furnas flew or not.  Green and al-Khalili seem to agree that it is unlikely, but Green notes that Ibn Furnas is nonetheless recognized as one of the pioneers of aviation.

This is the fourth episode of Science in A Golden Age, a six-part series first broadcast in 2015.  It was created by al-Jazeera network and the Glasshead production company.  Each episode focuses on topics that have both historical and contemporary components.  Some of the contemporary segments were filmed in Doha, Qatar, home for the al-Jazeera network.


Islam:  The material on Islam is within the bounds of what Muslims have historically understood as acceptable.

Science:  The science presented is consistent with a consensus of contemporary scientists.

History: The historical presentation reflects current understanding of the people and events involved.  Al-Khalili takes care to present the inventions and inventors he discusses here as part of a long tradition.  One tiny quibble:  al-Khalili suggests that “engineers of the Golden Age” preserved the Roman underground reservoir in Istanbul he was filming, but this seems unlikely, given that Constantinople wasn’t conquered by the Ottomans until 1453, after al-Khalili’s own construction of this golden age had ended.

About Jim al-Khalili

Born September 20, 1962 in Baghdad, Iraq, Jim Al Khalili is a renowned theoretical physicist, writer, lecturer, and broadcaster. Growing up with a devout Christian mother and a slightly agnostic Muslim father, Al-Khalili now describes himself as a “cuddly atheist.” He immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1979, and completed both a bachelors of science and a Ph.D. in nuclear reaction theory at the University of Surrey. Khalili remained at the University of Surrey, and as of 2015 is still a professor of physics there. In addition, he holds a chair in Public Engagement in Science Department.

Khalili conducts research into quantum physics and quantum biology, but is most well known for his accessibly written, popular science books and his regular appearances as a TV presenter for science documentaries. Khalili is also a radio broadcaster for BBC4, presenting ‘The Life Scientific’ weekly. His list of accomplishments and awards are long, though most notably he was the youngest person to ever receive the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday prize for science communication in 2008 and also received the Institute of Physics Kelvin Medal in 2011. Khalili also became President of the British Humanist Association in 2013.

As of 2015, Khalili operates an active Twitter page and a personal website. In addition, he periodically writes for The Guardian newspaper; however, his most recent post there was in December 2014. Khalili’s personal website is host to his blog and a collection of his various science communication efforts.

Selected Bibliography:

Al-Khalili, Jim. Jim Al-Khalili’s Website. N.p., n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Al-Khalili, Jim. Twitter. Twitter, n.d.

“Jim Al-Khalili.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Biography in Context. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Peck, Tom. “Jim Al-Khalili: ‘I’m a Cuddly Atheist. I Don’t Need to Tell My Mum Her Faith Is Stupid’” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 23 Dec. 2012. Accessed 1 June 2015.

President of the British Humanist Association.” British Humanist Association. British Humanist Association, n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE.” Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE. The Royal Society, n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.