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.