Entertainment & Technology


Can’t live with ‘em, can’t run away from ‘em

Recently while doing nothing, which I do quite well, I was startled by a mechanical noise coming from my bedroom. Trusty broom in hand I ventured forth. On the floor was a ‘UCO’. 

Of course this stands for “Unidentified Crawling Object’. A noisy black disc was spinning through the room, navigating between table legs, bouncing off the night stand and all the while paying me no mind (if he/she has one). My wife informed me that our Robot is cleaning the floors, therefore I should do nothing somewhere else. I wonder if this is what they mean when they talk about robots taking over?

I know my grandson has robots that come apart, turn into something else, and then back to their original shapes, but that’s a transformer, aka a 21st century Rubik’s cube, and nothing more. I remember TOBOR the robot from 1950’s TV, but that was just a guy in a mylar suit with some padding and an old football helmet painted silver. So where did the Robot idea come from?

Tobor the Great

Don’t give the stock answer Leonardo Da Vinci — that cat gets credit for everything.  Actually, the first robotics were formulated in the 12th Century by a inventor whose name is rarely ever mentioned. Ismail al-Jazari was a true creative genius. His machines startled and delighted kings and queens and the merchants who served them. It Is said he built a programmable water fountain, and automatons that could offer guests a bath towel. 


While a good many of the inventions were play things for the very rich, many had practical uses as well. 

Mr. Badi al-Zaman Abu al-Izz Ismail ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari was born in 1136 in a town with a name almost as long as his. (Central Turkey, will suffice for we moderns). His father was a craftsman, and he himself served several masters as an engineer, craftsman, designer and artisan. 

It is written that he created over 100 inventions, but unlike most other inventors of the time, his were all well documented.

The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, a book he published, gathers 100 devices he built, and the instructions on how to build them. He built things as far fetched as crankshafts, escapement mechanisms, segmental gears, all the way to double-action suction pumps with valves and reciprocating piston motion. As you can imagine in the 12th century, this was indeed revolutionary stuff. (Not to bad today either.)

A page from al-Jazari’s book

While everyone is aware of Da Vinci’s legacy and genius, very few know that he was inspired by Al-Jazari’s plans and successes. Mr. al-Jazari built automated mechanisms such as moving peacocks powered by hydropower, plus the first automatic gates and doors.  

One of his most elaborate robotics was a musical robot band. It was a boat that floated on a lake and entertained guests with 4 robot musicians. It’s also among the first programmable automata: you could define the drum machine’s rhythms and patterns using pegs. Could this be the actual forerunner of the Beatles!

al-Jazari’s robot band

While these inventions are amazing, we still have very little information on his life, other than he was well received at court and amassed quite a nice bank roll for his work.

And why not? We all know how well rock musicians are paid…

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