Home Feature 5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim Civilisation

5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim Civilisation

Fully automated environmentally friendly water raising devices, pumps, windmills and more! Discover some of the most facinating devices from the Golden Age of Muslim Civilisation that brought creative innovative ideas helping to drive agriculture and industries from southern Spain to China.

Stories - 5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim Civilisation

During the Golden Age of Muslim Civilisation creative new innovative ideas travelled across the land from southern Spain to China – innovations in medicine, astronomy, trade, navigation, architecture, technology, industry, agriculture and much more were common place. In the field of agriculture, innovation meant that farmers were planting new crops, developing state-of-the-art irrigation techniques, using organic fertilisers, harnessing global knowledge in local areas, and basing their agronomy on scientific findings. This all led to an agricultural revolution, harnessing clean energy sources, making fresh food available to more people.

“It is admitted with difficulty that a nation in majority of nomads could have had known any form of agricultural techniques other than sowing wheat and barley. The misconceptions derive from the rarity of works on the subject… If we bothered to open and consult the old manuscripts, so many views will be changed, so many prejudices will be demolished…” A. Cherbonneau

Farmers and engineers in the Golden Age inherited existing techniques of irrigation, preserving some while modifying, improving and constructing others. It was common across the Muslim world to see hundreds of windmills and waterwheels busily irrigating crops. But they did not have the capacity to supply ever town and village. Engineers like Al-Jazari designed water-raising machinery aimed to bring the supply directly to local people and enhance the framing capacity.

Here we look at a few innovative machines that powered the agricultural revolution in Muslim Civilisation.

Double Suction Pump of Al-Jazari
Early 12th century

Stories - 5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim Civilisation(Left) A manuscript shows Al-Jazari’s reciprocating pump. This was the first time an illustration of a crank appeared in a manuscript* – (Right) 3D animated image of reciprocating pump

A chapter of Al-Jazari’s book was devoted to water raising machines. It also included  sophisticated machines  powered by water and gravity, simulating the principle of the balance (see the video below). As the water fills one bucket and as it spills into the large cylindrical tank a siphon sets into action and so on, to generate air pressure through a flute and gives out a sound at controlled intervals. The interval is controlled by the rate at which the water flows from the tap.

It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of al-Jazari’s work in the history of engineering. Until modern times there is no other document from any cultural area that provides a comparable wealth of instructions for the design, manufacture and assembly of machines… Al-Jazari did not only assimilate the techniques of his non-Arab and Arab predecessors, he was also creative. He added several mechanical and hydraulic devices. The impact of these inventions can be seen in the later designing of steam engines and internal combustion engines, paving the way for automatic control and other modern machinery. The impact of al-Jazari’s inventions is still felt in modern contemporary mechanical engineering…” Donald R. Hill

This is a water-driven twin-cylinder pump. The important features embodied in this pump are the double-acting principle, the conversion of rotary into reciprocating motion, and the use of two suction pipes. The hand-driven pumps of classical and Hellenistic times had vertical cylinders which stood directly in the water which entered them through plate-valves in the bottoms of the cylinders on the suction strokes. The pumps could not, therefore, be positioned above the water level. This pump of al-lazari could be considered as the origin of the suction pump. The assumption that Taccola (c. 1450) was the first to describe a suction pump is not substantiated. The only explanation for the sudden appearance of the suction pump in the writings of the Renaissance engineers in Europe is that the idea was inherited from Muslim Civilisation, whose engineers were familiar with piston pumps for a long time throughout the Middle Ages.

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The Six-Cylinder Water Pump of Taqi al-Din
16th century

Stories - 5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim Civilisation(Left)  Third page of the section devoted to the six-cylinder pump in the Chester Beatty MS (p. 38) of Al-Turuq al-Saniya. – (Right) 3D animated image of six-cylinder pump

Among the original machines described in the corpus of technology from Muslim Civilisation, the six-cylinder “monobloc” piston pump designed by Taqi al-Din Ibn Ma’ruf in the late 16th century holds a special place. Working as a suction pump, this complex machine included components that are often associated with modern technology, such as a camshaft, a cylinder block, pistons, and non-return valves. In this article, Joseph Vera, an expert in re-engineering ancient inventions, describes how he created a SolidWorks CAD model of this remarkable pump, that he completed with a motion simulation. The conclusion he drew after creating the model and the simulation is that the engineers of the Muslim tradition, represented by Taqi al-Din, had a very solid grasp of kinematics, dynamics and fluid mechanics. He notes also that Taqi al-Din’s “monobloc” pump is a remarkable example of a machine using renewable energy, a topic that is currently of utmost importance…

Taqi al-Din… completes the Islamic Era’s most crucial phase in mechanical engineering…” Ragheb El-Sergany

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  • Muslim HeritageThe Six-Cylinder Water Pump of Taqi al-Din
    by Salim Al-Hassani & Mohammed Al-Lawat
  • Muslim HeritageCreating a 3D Model with Motion Analysis…
    by Joseph Vera
  • Muslim HeritageFilling the Gap in the History of Pre-Modern Industry
    by Salim Al-Hassani
  • 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization
    Market Zone, 04 Water Supply, Page 122-126


Vertical Windmills
6th century onward

Stories - Ancient and Modern Ways To Harness The Wind(Left) A 14th-century manuscript by Al-Dimashqi shows a cross-section of a typical windmill whose vertical vanes rotate around a vertical shaft*, (Right) Windmills in the Iranian region of Nishtafun Right (Source)

[Most historians believe that it was the Crusaders who introduced windmills to Europe in the 12th century. A Persian had come to the second Caliph Umar, who reigned for ten years from 634, and claimed he could build a mill operated by wind, so the caliph ordered him to have one built.  After this, wind power became widely used to run millstones for grinding corn, and also to draw up water for irrigation. This was done first in Seistan, and Al-Masudi, a geographer who lived in the tenth century, described the region as a “country of wind and sand.” He also wrote, “[A] characteristic of the area is that the power of the wind is used to drive pumps for watering gardens.”]*

Joseph Needham, in his multivolume work on Science and Civilization in China, notes that ‘the history of windmills really begins with Islamic culture, and in Iran’. The Banu Musa mention windmills in their Book on Mechanical Devices, where they say that they ‘are commonly used by the people’. These windmills were of the horizontal type and came into common use in Europe in the sixteenth century. According to Needham, `this must surely have been a westward transmission from Iberian culture originally derived from Muslim Spain’. Needham believes that the vertical windmill was a European invention, stimulated by the horizontal type that had been acquired from al-Andalus…John Freely

[A thousand years ago, geographer Al-Istakhri wrote of seeing windmills used to provide power, running mills that were built everywhere. Unlike the traditional European design, Central Asian windmills had vertical vanes to catch the wind. Built on top of castles or at the crest of hills, the windmills had two stories. In one story were the millstones, one connected to a vertical wooden shaft. This shaft extended into the other story, where six to twelve windmill sails were mounted vertically, covered in cloth or palm leaves. The structure of the windmill was open to catch the wind on the northeast side.]*

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  • Muslim HeritageThe European Muslim Heritage and its Role in the…
    by Salim Al-Hassani
  • 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization
    Market Zone, 06 Windmills, Page 128-131


Large Waterwheels (Norias)
Early 7th century onward

Stories - 5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim CivilisationThese norias, which raise water from the Orontes River, are in Hama, Syria*

[Large waterwheels, or norias, have raised water from fast-flowing waterways to higher land since 100 b.c.e. Vitruvius, the Roman writer, architect, and engineer, mentioned this simple yet powerful device. Like any waterwheel, it was turned by the force of flowing water against paddle compartments on its rim. These filled with water and took it to the top, where they emptied into a head tank connected to an aqueduct. Already used by the Romans and Persians, they were adapted and redeveloped by the Muslims.]*

“The norias were widespread in the land of Islam, the water wheels of Hama, according to Sarton, being some of its great glories” Al-Djazairi, S.E

“It has been claimed that water-wheels were brought back to Europe by the Crusaders. Some water-wheels must have existed in Europe before this time (cf. e.g., Gregory of Tours), but it is probable that the Crusaders saw more of them and better ones in the East and brought back home that improved type or at least a clearer conception of their usefulness. Moreover the enormous economic expansion which took place in Western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries must have brought into being a great number of water-wheels, whether of the Western or of the Eastern type….” George Sarton

[The first Muslim mention of norias refers to the excavation of a canal in the Basra region in the late seventh century. The wheels at Hama, on the river Orontes in Syria, called by Sarton: Hama’s Great Glories,  still exist, although they are no longer in use. They were big wheels and the largest was about 20 meters (65.6 feet) in diameter, with its rim being divided into 120 compartments. The noria at Murcia in Spain, LaNora, is still in operation, although the original wheel has been replaced by a steel one. Apart from this, the ‘Moorish’ system is otherwise virtually unchanged. There are still many norias in various parts of the world, and they are often able to compete successfully with modern pumps.]*

Arnold Pacey for instance, notes how mechanical techniques reached a high level of sophistication in the Muslim civilization as well as in China, notably with respect to the application of water wheels to generate power…

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Third Water-Raising Device of Al-Jazari
12th century

Stories - 5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim Civilisation(Left) Page from a 13th-century manuscript depict a water-raising machine designed by Al-Jazari. Water-raising machines are driven by a water turbine through geared shafts, which turn a sindi wheel carrying a long belt of buckets. Al-Jazari made a wooden animal and placed it on the rotating disc on the machine so maybe people would not think the automatic machine was driven by “magic”; they thought it was driven by an animal, operating multiple gears with partial teeth to produce a sequence of motion in four scoops that took water from the river one scoop at a time. This design included a camshaft, which controlled the mechanism – (Right) 3D Animated Image of the device
1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization
Market Zone, 04 Water Supply, Page 122-126

The Third Water-Raising Device was intended as a decorative attraction near an ornamental lake, with an element of mystification about it. Thence an ornamental lake erects an elegant open structure, with only its automata working parts visible to spectators, thus leaving the spectators curious on how the device is powered (see image).  Consider the nature of al-Jazari’s working environment, it is most likely erected in the King’s garden, where it caused wonder and aesthetic pleasure to courtly circles and raised water for irrigation to the garden at the same time. It was however, simply an elegant development of a utilitarian device that was used for supplying water for irrigation and domestic purposes. A development of the Saqiya, having the main difference of the device being powered by waterpower instead of animal power. The structure itself is quite small, being divided into 2 sections; the lower chamber whereby the water driven mechanism is ‘hidden’ under the ground and upper chamber whereby the automated mechanism above the pool was made visible.

Al Jami’ Bainal Al I’lm wal A’mal al Nafi’ fi Sina’at al Hiyal  (A Compendium on the Theory and Useful Practice of the Mechanical Arts) also referred to as Kitab ilm al-Hiyal (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices)… Al-Jazari narrates his experience: “I was in [Sultan Nasir ad-Din’s] presence one day and had brought him something which he had ordered me to make. He looked at me and he looked at what I had made and thought about it, without my noticing. He guessed what I had been thinking about, and unveiled unerringly what I had concealed. He said, “You have made peerless devices, and through strength have brought them forth as works, so do not lose what you have wearied yourself with and have plainly constructed. I wish you to compose for me a book which assembles what you have created separately, and brings together a selection of individual items and pictures…”
And so Al-Jazari completed his treatise, which, according to Sarton, saw ‘the climax of this line of Muslim achievement.

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Further Information

Stories - 5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim Civilisation

There are multiple other mechanical devices. For example Al-Jazari has designed three more water-raising machines and many additional indigenous devices like clocks, some of them feature in our previous story entitled Top 7 ingenious Clocks from Muslim Civilisation that defied the Middle Ages” along with those developed by Taqi al-Din, Al-Muradi and Ridhwan al-Sa’ati. The Banu Musa brothers also produced fascinating machines such as like Hydraulic Organ, wudu’ (ablution) water machine, The Self Changing Fountain and the drinking device for animals (right figure). There are also trick devices like a drinking bull and tea-making lady robots (See 1001 Inventions book, Trick Devices) and let’s not forget to mention Al-Muradi’s “Book of Secrets“. Other devices and tools invented or improved upon from scholars from Muslim Civilisation include a paper-glass-ceramic-pottery making machine, various musical, astronomical, medical, military, agricultural and alchemy instruments. These will be mentioned in our future stories.

For nearly eight centuries, under the Mohammedan rulers, Spain set to all Europe a shining example of a civilised and enlightened state. Her fertile provinces, rendered doubly prolific by the industry and engineering skill of her conquerors, bore fruit a hundredfold. Cities innumerable sprang up in the rich valleys of the Guadelquivir and the Guadiana, whose names, and names only, still commemorate the vanished glories of their past…”  S. Lane-Poole

“Muslim devices were used for many practical ends such as pearl fishing, protection in polluted wells, clepsydre used to regulate irrigation time with extreme accuracy through the year, and telling time. With regard to bulky machinery, the same concern for practicality was also in force; water lifting devices, for instance, were used for irrigation, whilst other machinery was used for crushing sugar cane and for extracting vegetable oils. Al-Hassan, in his edition of Taqi al-Din (Taqi Eddin), also points out that the Muslim engineer, from the early days of Islamic civilisation, used his skills and knowledge to build cities and dams, projects for irrigation, and in making machinery that had a wider public use. Colish also notes: There is another dimension to Muslim science that must be noted along with the indubitable creative achievements of its golden age. The Muslims were interested in selected fields and in particular problems… In each case, the subject was appealing because it had practical applications. Pure scientific theory, the lure of scientific knowledge for its own sake that had animated ancient Greeks, was not.” (Al-Djazairi, S.E.)

The use of the crank and connecting it to what we call a cam-shaft, this had revolutionized machinery and engines like the steam engines and the diesel engines and the petrol engines…
This simple mechanical component allows the conversion of continuous rotary motion into a reciprocating one. Hand-operated cranks had been known for centuries but the incorporation of a crank connecting rod system in a rotating machine was an incredible innovation. Modern engineers who have studied Al-Jazari design have discovered the horizontal axel of the machine is turned by gears and at the end of the cranks slides in the hinged connecting rod causing it to possibly around its hinge and thus causing the water bucket to rise and fall; until modern scholars decoded Al-Jazari’s design it was believed that this system was an invention a 15th century Europe, but remarkably Al-Jazari was using this crank device in his machines two centuries earlier…”

Ancient Discoveries – The Machines of the East (History Channel)

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Stories - 5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim CivilisationHydropowered water-raising machine in the book of Al-Jazari on mechanical devices

Stories - 5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim CivilisationA 3D model of the wudu’ (ablution) water machine constructed from Banu Musa’s manuscripts

Stories - 5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim CivilisationA 3D graphic model of the gun powder propelled Torpedo constructed from the manuscript of Hasan al-Rammah.

Stories - Secret Source: Top Five Fountains in the Gardens of Muslim civilisation
The Self Changing Fountain of Banu Musa bin Shakir

Stories - 5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim Civilisation

An artist’s whimsical ideas about a 12th century method of increasing hydro-power train by 1.0 ox-power, for a water bucket elevator for water supply (Source)

Stories - 5 Amazing Mechanical Devices from Muslim Civilisation

The Albolafia noria, or waterwheel, is the last vestige of an array of mills and dams built on the Guadalquivir River in Cordoba between the 8th and 10th centuries as it appears in its present condition. (Source) and below is a picture of a noria in Hadith Bayadh wa Riyadh (The Story of Bayad and Riyad) , an Andalusian love story, 13th-century (Source) Outside the palace an agricultural setting is suggested by the depiction of water and the water wheel. (Source)