Al-Jazari and the First Programmable Humanoid Robot

Before Da Vinci there was Al-Jazari – the Engineering genius of the Islamic world in the Middle Ages. He designed and built a number of automatas including the first programmable humanoid robot. He is also invented the Crank-shank. Here is a page (now offline) on the reconstruction of Al-Jazari’s automata.

A 13th Century Programmable Robot

A team from the USA history channel were on campus last month in the Faculty of Engineering to talk about some very old robots. They were there to film a replica of the mechanism for al-Jazari’s drinking boat; a boat full of musical automata first constructed in 1206. Professor Noel Sharkey from Computer Science built the core of the device –”bodged it together from a pile of rubbish”, he says – to demonstrate how it could have been programmed. The previous claim for the world’s oldest programmable automata is for a machine built by Leonardo da Vinci in 1478.

Al-Jazari’s machine was originally a boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal drinking parties. It had two drummers, a harpist and a flautist. Professor Sharkey’s machine has just the one drummer with a drum, cymbals, bells and no body. The flautist is replaced with an Irish penny whistle. He says he wouldn’t risk taking this to any drinking parties round here.

The heart of the mechanism is a rotating cylindrical beam with pegs (cams) protruding from it. These just bump into little levers that operate the percussion. The point of the model is to demonstrate that the drummer can be made to play different rhythms and different drum patterns if the pegs are moved around. In other words it is a programmable drum machine.

“Whether or not al-Jazari dynamically programmed his machines is an intriguing question”, he says, “it is quite likely that he used this method, at the very least, for fine tuning the rhythm of the musicians”.

Professor Sharkey is currently looking at a much older mobile automaton device by Heron of Alexandria, 1st Century AD, which he now suspects may also have been programmable.

The TV programme, The Ancient Robots, will air in the USA in early 2007.

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28 Responses to “Al-Jazari and the First Programmable Humanoid Robot”


  1. 1 tauslu March 6, 2007 at 7:45 pm

    I found another link which shows further projects of Al-Jazari besides the Wikipedia article. This page shows an oscillator that has been designed by Al-Jazari (in Turkish it will be Razzaz el Cezeri)

    http://www.antrak.org.tr/gazete/101999/ahmet.htm

    There are published books in Turkish. I will try to get one of them.

  2. 2 Da Vinci Automata March 7, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Excellent! Thanks for the link tauslu. I shall be looking forward towards more info about this engineer from you.

  3. 4 nex March 10, 2007 at 3:58 pm

    for future reference …

    automaton: singular
    automata: plural
    automatas: overeagerness

  4. 5 Da Vinci Automata March 11, 2007 at 2:17 am

    nex: good point. :)

  5. 7 Samir Franciscus January 5, 2008 at 8:05 am

    Al-Jazari was most definitely equal to the genius of Da Vinci. I posted an article on Al-Jazari on my blog http://notesonislam.blogspot.com/2007/12/al-jazaris-elephant-clock-through-eyes.html

  6. 8 marshayla pittman December 9, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    ya maa,

  7. 9 Hassan Siyaka Eromi March 21, 2009 at 12:08 am

    I’m always inspired by reading al-jazari’s work in d field of mechanical engineering. I’m an undergraduate student in one of d university in Nigeria and i wish to be like him and also leave a legacy for d humanity. I’ll like to read more about him and other great mechanical engineers in d early centuries.

  8. 10 Nawroz September 12, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Al-Jazari was of Kurdish Descent of the Botan tribe, his last name is the place of his birth just like Leonardo Da Vinci, its located in Northern Kurdistan.

    I am not from that city but I have talked to people from there and they are very proud of him. There are many descendants of his tribe still living in the area.

    Due to his writings in Arabic, he is often mistaken as an Arab.

  9. 13 Occurnwer November 24, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    A lot of of guys write about this subject but you said really true words.

  10. 14 Nawroz June 16, 2010 at 1:57 am

    I assume you have never heard of the Gutians which the word “Kurd” derives from, the Turks came to where they are now only about 1000 years ago from central asia while the Kurds have been there ever since the begining of civilization.

    There is a famous kurdish poet by the same name of the same place Al-Jazari came from, except he only wrote poems in kurdish, he was also from the botan tribe. he was alive a few hundred years after Al-Jazari died.

  11. 16 zyra June 24, 2011 at 4:28 am

    wala namang picture nang naggawa at nang robot dapat meron hahaha project ko kasi eh jejej

  12. 18 Mohammed yousuf March 8, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    Al-jazari was very good inventer genius building robots in 13 century

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