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Inventions II


1.             Windmills were first described by Persian geographer Estakhri in the ninth century. They were used to grind corn and draw up water and looked different from European ones. The technology is thought to have arrived in Europe through Islamic Spain.

2.             The first hydro-powered water supply system was developed by al-Jaziri in Damascus – driven by gears and hydro-power – to supply water to the city’s mosques and hospitals. Fès had a similar system which worked until relatively recently. Hydro-power was used to power paper mills and all sorts of other devices.

3.             Water wheels called Norias were developed for feeding water into aqueducts. The newly-invented crankshaft was added, and the technology was constantly refined.

4.             As well as crankshafts, Arab engineers devised flywheels, chain pumps, gearing systems, suction pumps, and automata.

5.             The greatest engineer of the era was without doubt al-Jazari, whose breakthroughs in the twelfth century can still be found around us today. His masterwork was the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. He developed the first automatic gates, run on hydro-power, water clocks, and machines which looked like people and would serve cold drinks. He invented the flush mechanism found in most of our toilets, and even a musical robot band.




I have already mentioned in passing a number of Arab inventions from the Golden Age. They include a wide range of medical, chemical and astronomical devices. But there are whole other areas in which the Arabs inventors excelled.

         Arab engineers learned from the Romans, Greeks and from their own scientists, and came up with creations that demonstrated their astonishing ingenuity. Some of these creations improved living conditions, while others were more whimsical.

         Engineers were hugely important. When the tenth century Persian engineer and polymath, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), reached Cairo, the Caliph himself went to the gates to greet him. He had been invited to regulate the flooding on the Nile. It soon dawned on him that he couldn’t solve the problem. The only way to save his neck was to feign madness and live for years under house arrest… biding his time until the Caliph’s own death.




As Astronomy developed so in tandem did mathematics and geometry. The great Arab polymaths changed the world in which live by their mastery of mathematics.

1.                               Without doubt the most important breakthrough was the language of mathematics: the introduction of ‘Arabic’ numerals from India, and their use for the first time of a decimal point.

2.                               Introducing Zero to mainstream mathematics was the other massive breakthrough: so enormous that we can hardly grasp its importance… the idea of representing nothing with a symbol.

3.                               In the ninth century Persian polymath al-Khwarizmi gave us Algorithms, which form the basis of most computer programming… indeed our word ‘Algorithm’ is derived from his name.

4.                               Al-Khwarizmi is credited with writing the first book on Algebra as well. It’s title was The Compendious Book on calculation by Completion and Balancing, and was published about 820 AD.

5.                               Arab mathematics honed the work of the Greeks, the Romans as well as that of South Asia. And this work was channelled directly into Europe through Islamic Spain and, with time, made available to the great minds of the Renaissance.




The lightning spread of Islam by the eighth century – from Iberia to modern Afghanistan and beyond, led to a huge reappraisal of geography. New information was flooding into research centres in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Cordoba and elsewhere, and new technology (such as quadrants and astrolabes) was used to create ever-more accurate maps.

         The greatest was Al-Idrisi’s twelfth century atlas, prepared for the Norman King Roger II of Sicily (in 1154 AD), incorporated Africa, Europe, Asia minor, India and the known stretches of the Far East. It was the first atlas of its kind and took 18 years to produce.




Astronomy II

The corrections and original breakthroughs in astronomy were eventually absorbed into the works of Copernicus and the Renaissance astronomers. The greatest Arab achievements in the fields included:

1.                               The Arabs distinguished between astronomy and  astrology for the first time. And astrology was regarded as a key science by the Abbasids.

2.                               Milky Way: Al-Biruni (Persian astronomer 11th century) proposed that the Milky Way was a collection of nebulous stars.

3.                               Ibn Bajjah (Avempace, 12th c.) concluded that the Milky Way was a vast collection of stars but appeared to be a continuous entity, because of the effect of refraction in the Earth’s atmosphere. It wasn’t until 1610 that Galileo studied the Milky Way with a telescope and discovered it was composed of a huge number of faint stars.

4.                               Arab astronomy developed numerous pieces of equipment for measuring angles, such as quadrants… and importantly, astrolabes. These were used for measuring the distance of celestial bodies above the horizon, as well as in determining latitude.





Unlike Chemistry and the life sciences, the Arab quest for the physical sciences came about partly through a need for accurate information… information that related to the Islamic faith. It was necessary to know when to begin and end Ramadan, and when to pray, and in which direction (to Mecca).

Mosques often had their own astronomer, a muqqawit, to determine the time for prayer. They had their own observatories as well. Calendars of prayer times and Ramadan dates, Eid etc were vital, and were created through a knowledge of astronomy. They also had elaborate astronomical charts and instruments for determining the most fortuitous moment to begin a battle or to set out on a journey. All this knowledge in turn fuelled breakthroughs in mathematics, geometry, and geography.

The Abbasids based their research principally on the works of Ptolemy and the work of the seventh century Indian mathematician-astronomer Brahmagupta. The key breakthrough of the Arabs in astronomy was in correcting longstanding errors in the Ptolemaic system. A number of the great Arab polymaths turned their hands to the field, seemingly effortlessly. 



Chemistry II

 Some of the breakthroughs in chemistry under the Abbasids:

1.                   Distillation equipment (such as alembic apparatus, stills and retorts) allowed for alcohol (ethanol) to be distilled for the first time (which was used for perfume and sterilization, rather than drinking). Rosewater was also made through distillation.

2.                   Kerosene was was distilled from petroleum by al-Razi in ninth century Baghdad. He described the process in Kitab al-Asrar, The Book of Secrets. Kerosene was used in lamps. Other petrol products were known and used. The streets of Baghdad were paved with tar in the eighth century. And Arab scientists first distilled crude oil to create what we know as petrol.

3.                   Other processes developed and refined, included crystallization, filtration, and steam distillation.

4.                   Strong acids were created for the first time, including nitric, hydrochloric, and sulphuric acid (the ancients had only had vinegar).

5.                   Other elements were discovered, such as arsenic and antimony, and chemical elements were clearly divided into categories and studied.

6.                   Soap was manufactured for the first time; and even glue was made from cheese… a secret recipe described in ibn Hayyan’s (Gerber) The Book of the Hidden Pearl.

7.                   Cosmetics were also developed, including those by the fabulous-sounding ‘Ziryab’ ‘The Blackbird’, a former Persian slave, who is credited with inventing toothpaste. The idea caught on like wildfire. He went on to open a beauty parlour in Andaucian Spain and supposedly pioneered underarm deodorants and the chemical removal of unwanted body hair for women.

8.                   Other inventions were far less whimsical and were snapped up by the military… including potassium nitrate (saltpetre) which enabled a complete recipe for gunpowder (tenth century). Gunpowder had been made and discussed for a long time, but the first book dedicated to it was written in the thirteenth century by Hasan al-Rammah, entitled The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices.





Modern chemistry may owe more to Islamic science than just about any other area. Its very name of course is derived from al-kemia, the word for alchemy.

Although alchemy was very important, and had come to the Arabs from both India and the Roman Empire, we now understand increasingly how many Arab scientists refuted the belief in transmuting base metals into gold.

Arab breakthroughs in chemistry are plentiful, and were aided by new scientific practice, as we have seen. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the various that were championed under the Abbasids.


Knock on effect...

Understandings in our environment and the natural world allowed for breakthroughs in agriculture. These included areas such as pollination, pesticides, irrigation, grafting, crop rotation and soil preparation, as well as the classification of plants. Works such as those by the thirteenth century Andalucian botanist al-Baitar, were used in Europe for centuries to come. His masterwork listed 1400 plants (300 discovered by himself). His writings were translated into Latin and kept in print until 1758, and used until the start of the nineteenth century. Breakthroughs in water technology and hydraulics meant that regions which had been barren could be irrigated, and man could control his environment in ways that had never been possible.




Theories of evolution were widespread across the Islamic world by the 12th century. One of the pioneers of this thinking was Al-Jahiz, who was working in ninth century Baghdad. He wrote about the idea of the environment on an animal, and the animal’s chances of survival based on the environment; as well as writing on what he called ‘the struggle for existence’, a forerunner of Darwin’s ‘natural selection’.

Al-Jahiz also described the idea of food chains were first described, and the concept of nature versus nurture.