Al Jazari, the Islamic Engineer Inventor built man’s earliest water supply system

Monday, 21 June 2010 11:37
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By Shahfizal Musa

BANGI, 21 June, 2010 -- An Islamic engineer and inventor has been discovered to be the first man to successfully developed and built
man’s earliest sophisticated water supply system driven by gears and hydropower to supply water to mosques and hospitals in Diyarbakir, Anatolia in the early 13th century.

A team of researchers from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia discovered that, Ismā'īl ibn Al Razāz Al Jazari (1150-1220) came up with the system using water as the power to distribute water to the selected areas. Al Jazari’s machine, consisted of a water wheel, an advanced pump system and gears mechanism,  pumped water from the water source located down at the bottom of a hill to mosques and hospitals in the city using a pipeline system. The city was situated at the top of the hill.

The researchers have successfully modeled the gears mechanism used in Al Jazari’s water system in a modern three dimensional drawing. It graphically demonstrated the working operation of the gears system and the suction pump.



 
Graphic of how the water supply system works.

This fact was discovered by the team from three different areas of expertise. Dr Nordin Jamaludin an Associate Professor from Department of Mechanical Engineering reported this in his working paper entitled “Engineering Analysis of Ismail Al Jazari water raising system.” The paper was prepared in collaboration with Dr Salehudin Mohamed Haris and Mohd Nur Khairulnizam Mohd Ghazali.  

The team of Dr Nordin had worked closely with Associate Professor Dr Kamaruzaman Yusoff from School of History, Politics and Strategic Studies along with Associate Professor Dr Wan Kamal Mujani, an expert in Arabic language from the Department of Arabic and Islamic Civilisation Studies. 

While working together deciphering information from two 13th century manuscripts, they delved deeper into the intricate details of Al Jazari’s invention. The finding proposed that Al Jazari’s should have been credited with the invention of the hydraulics and gear system. The manuscripts are Fi Macrifat al-Hiyal al-Handasiyya (The Book of Ingenious Mechanical  Devices) and  “al-Jamic bain al-cIlm Wa al-cAmal al-Nafi sinacat al-Hiyal (A Compendium on the Theory and Useful Practice of the Mechanical Arts)”.

Access to the manuscript was made possible by Institute of Arabic Sciences and Civilisation, Aleppo, Syria as well as the Foundation of Science Technology and Civilisation, a foundation set up to highlight Muslim heritage developed during Europe’s dark ages and its influence during the rennaiscense. 

Al Jazari’s water supply system

This dispelled centuries old belief that it was Leonardo da Vinci (1452 –1519), the much honoured genius, who was attributed to be the first to develop and used hydraulics and mechanical gears. Credit for that invention should rightly go to Al Jazari, who developed the system more than 200 years before Leornado, who was given the credit only because Al Jazari’s writings were in Arabic and not known to the West.

The researchers felt that it was highly likely that Leonardo was influenced by Al Jazari’s writings because there were evidence of interactions between Leonardo da Vinci and the Ottoman Empire where Al Jazari had lived. In 1502, Leonardo produced a drawing of a single span 720-foot (220 m) bridge as part of a project for Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II of Istanbul.

This fact alone proved that there were communications between Leonardo and the descendents of Al Jazari’s employer, Sultan Artuq in Turkey during the Ottoman period. Yet Leonardo’s sketch was rejected because it was too impractical to implement.

Unlike many ancient text which mostly are like a maze of philosophical riddles, Al Jazari’s text was written to serve a practical purpose. It is like today’s Do it Yourself (DIY) guide which focussed on practical instructions on how to construct his inventions. The researchers had to combine three expertise; history, engineering and language to come up with their findings.

Al Jazari Water Raising device

The sophisticated water supply system developed in Diyarbakir included an extensive piping network built to channel water to areas where water was required including irrigations of agriculture. This was a leap in civilisation considering that even today, occupants of remote areas are still complaining about the lack of water supply.

What is so great about Al Jazari’s water system? Today if you open the tap in your house out comes the water. But for that to happen there must be a device that suck the water from its main source, transfer the water to another channel or pipeline that lead to your house. This is the simplest scenario which exist in a water supply sytem. Then naturally these devices need to be powered before they can operate.

At a time when people still relied on wells and rivers as the sources for water, Al Jazari’s invented the mechanical devices needed to create a water supply system. Unlike Leornado Da Vinci who’s greatness is measured in sketches that he made in his notes, Al Jazari’s successfully created a working and functional mechanical system operated by the devices he invented with great precision and accuracy. His water system, comprised of four main devices which formed several basis of mechanical engineering today.

A geared water wheel
A water wheel is used to obtain a similar effect of a turbine. The water wheel is usually submerged in a stream to take advantage of the flow of the river. When the water flow hits the blade of the water wheel it will cause it to rotate. Al Jazari’s water supply system used a water wheel with a vertical gear connected to the wheel. The vertical gear rotated together with the water wheel rotation.      

 

Flowing water from the stream hits the water wheel causing it to rotate

The vertical gear was used to convert the water energy from the rotating water wheel to rotate another gear which was placed horizontally. The uniqueness of the gearing system was such that it not only caused the motion to be transferred but also changed the motion direction from vertical to horizontal. The developed gear system by Al Jazari was probably the first functional gear system which practically transferred the rough movement of water flow to a smooth horizontal motion used  to operate a  delicate suction pump. The horizontal gear was the main gear to operate the central device in Al Jazari’s water system, known as the hydraulic suction pump, first introduced by Al Jazari.  


 

These gears are made from Mulberry wood so it will stand the test of time
Gear connected to the water wheel


The main gear
This main gear will rotate when the water wheel starts to rotate. The challenge was how to change the horizontal rotational movement to a back and forth movement, a linear motion.  Al Jazari had introduced a genius solution consisting of a small knob placed on the main horizontal gear to operate the arm of the pump. So when the main gear rotated it led to a piston like movement of the suction pump, pumping water out from the stream into a pipe which were then channeled to the respective areas of Diyarbakir.

Al Jazari accomplished three things here, firstly, he had succeeded in inventing a gear which channeled water power from a water wheel to operate other devices. Secondly, by using an unique combination of gears he was able to change the direction of the motion from vertical to horizontal.  Thirdly, by connecting the main gear to a suction pump he was able to create a piston like dual motion movements.


               Main Gear                          Gear operating water pump

These gears were made from mulberry wood which is known for its durability and long lasting quality. Mulberry wood is still used today to make hockey sticks.


Double-action suction pump with valves and reciprocating piston.
Al Jazari should also be recognised and credited for his contributions in inventing the suction pump. The pump was a device that used hydraulics power to pump water out into another pipeline system. In simple terms, Al Jazari’s water system, used the water stream to power a turbine which in turn by a combination of gears created a back and forth motion to operate the suction pump.

Al Jazari not only came up with the idea, he also created a working and functional hydraulic pump. The suction pump was the central part of Al Jazari’s water supply system. Because of the invention of the suction pump, water could be supplied to places far away and on a higher elevation from the main water source. He used cylinders and caps to produce a hydraulic effect.

By having a working and functional invention like this, it shows the depth of his knowledge. Al Jazari not only knew how to construct the pump, but he also chose the right material showing he knew about their properties. Specifically, the material used for the suction pump was copper which is known to be rust resistant and does not contaminate the water. It is clear that he was not only a mechanical engineer but also an expert on materials and their long lasting properties.


The miracle of Al Jazari’s water supply system
Unlike today where power is available at a click of a switch, in the 13th century power was non existent. There is not even one single source of power that could power the king’s chamber, let alone to power devices that can supply water miles away from the source.

The ingenuity of Al Jazari’s is clearly seen in his creativity in finding a power source and manipulating it exponentially. He used water as a power source to operate his pump to supply water. He turned the flowing water into useful energy which then was capable of operating a pump automatically and, finally the pump moved water from its source into a pipeline. It is fully automatic without the need of man power turning it on and off, so long as the water wheel was kept moving by the flowing stream.

It is unfortunate that the gear and hydraulics system introduced by Al Jazari’s were not properly recognised in the engineering world, as the engineering world credited several scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci for their theoretical contributions. Based in this finding, it is a fact that in the field of practical mechanical engineering, Al Jazari preceded the well known western scientists by over 200 years.



A Mechanical genius

Beside being the Royal Chief Mechanical Engineer for the Sultan, Al Jazari also had a very refined artistic taste. His intricate artistic character was clearly demonstrated in his inventions like the musical boat. Another outstanding Al Jazari invention was an elephant clock. It was the first automatic clock powered by water which accurately recorded time to match the uneven length of days throughout the year. The clock even had automatic features; a humanoid robot striking the cymbal and a mechanical robotic bird chirping denoting the time.  

Al Jazari all together invented, designed and fabricated 50 practical working devices as finished products. Principles applied in his inventions have been utilised in the development of new technology that we take for granted today from the car to the production line in a factory. 

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