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Arabic Mechanical Engineering: Survey of the Historical sources

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

Donald Hill
University College, London, UK


The first and more important section of this article lists all the known treatises in Arabic on Fine Technology – water-clocks, automata, pumps, trick vessels, fountains, etc. The ideas, techniques and components in these treatises are of great importance in the history of machine technology. For each treatise information is given on the provenance of MSS, editions in Arabic and translations, paraphrases or commentaries in modern European languages. In addition to treatises by Arabic writers, similar information is also given on Greek mechanical treatises if these have survived only in Arabic versions.

The second section deals with utilitarian machines such as mills and water-raising machines. The various sources of information about these machines is discussed, including Arabic works on geography and travel, iconography and archaeology.

La première section de cet article et la plus importante énumère tous les traités connus en arabe portant sur la technologie d'agrément – horloges à eau, automates, pompes, ‘vases merveilleux’, fontaines, etc. Les idées, les techniques et les mécanismes que l'on rencontre dans ces traités sont d'une grande importance pour l'histoire de la technologie. Pour chacun de ces traités, des renseignements sont donnés concernant la localisation des manuscrits, les éditions en arabe et les traductions, paraphrases et commentaires existant en langues européennes. On trouvera en outre des renseignements similaires sur les traités de mécanique grecs qui n'ont survécu que dans des versions arabes.

La seconde section traite des machines utilitaires telles que les moulins et les machines à élever l'eau. Les diverses sources d'information concernant ce type de machines sont discutées, y compris les livres de géographie et de voyages, l'iconographie et l'archeologie.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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1 Hill, Donald R., Arabic Water-clocks, pp. 1213.Google Scholar

2 Jubayr, Ibn, Riḥla, Arabic text ed. Wright, W., 2nd edn revised by M.J. de Goeje (Leiden and London, 1907), pp. 270ff. See also Hill, Arabic Water-clocks, pp. 71–2.Google Scholar

3 The monumental water-clock described in Chapter 1, for example, was reconstructed full-size by P.N. Haward for the World of Islam Festival 1976 in the Science Museum, London. Mr Haward worked to al-Jazarī's own instructions and specifications, with some minor assistance from the present writer. The clock worked perfectly.

4 See Hill, Arabic Water-clocks, pp. 126–30 for a detailed description of the water-clock. For the mercury clock see Hill, Donald R., ‘Islamic Fine Technology and its Influence on the Development of European Horology’, Al-Abhath, XXXV (Beirut, 1987), pp. 928Google Scholar and also Bedini, Silvio A., ‘The Compartmented Cylindrical Clepsydra’, Technology & Culture 3, (Spring 1962), pp. 115–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar In later European versions of this type of clock the mercury was replaced by water and the cylinders themselves rotated and descended. Mills, A.P. in ‘The Mercury Clock of the Libros del Saber’, Annals of Science, 45 (1988), pp. 329–44 doubted, on the evidence of a reconstruction he had made of the Libros del Saber clock, whether such clocks would be accurate timekeepers. This view is, however, contradicted by the fact that the falling drum clepsydra in its various forms was extremely popular in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a cheap and reliable timekeeper;CrossRefGoogle Scholar see Turner, Anthony, The Time Museum (Rockford, 1984), vol. 1, pt. 3, pp. 40–3.Google Scholar

5 Taqī al-Dīn also wrote a book on mechanical clocks, see Tekeli, Sevim, The Clocks in the Ottoman Empire in 16th century and Taqī al-Dīn's ‘The Brightest Stars for the Construction of the Mechanical Clocks’ (Ankara, 1966).Google Scholar

6 Eginard, Annales Francorum: Chronicum Turonese; quoted and trans. Beckmann, John, A History of Inventions, Discoveries and Origins, 4th edn (trans. Johnstone, William, rev. and enl. by Francis, William and Griffith, J.W.), 2 vols. (London, 1846), vol. 1, p. 343.Google Scholar

7 Al-Muqtabis (Beirut, 1939/1973), pp. 8184.Google Scholar See also Vernet, Juan, ‘Mármol, Obra de Zarquel’, Hommage à Georges Vajda (Louvain, 1980), pp. 151–54, reprinted in Vernet's collected works, pp. 297–300.Google Scholar

8 Hill, Arabic Water-clocks, p. 49.

9 Millás, J.M., Estudios sobre Azarquiel (Madrid, 19431950), pp. 69, in which a Spanish translation of al-Zhurīs's text is given.Google Scholar The Arabic text, with German and English translation is given by Wittstein, Armin, ‘Ueber die Wasseruhr und das Astrolabium des Arzachel’, Zeitschrift für Mathematik und Physik, historishliterarisch Abtheilung, 39 (1894), pp. 4155.Google Scholar

10 Juan Vernet, ‘Mármol, Obra de Zarquel’.

11 Strange, G. Le, Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate (Oxford, 1900), p. 267.Google Scholar

12 Derek de Solla Price, ‘Mechanical Water Clocks of the 14th Century in Fez, Morocco’, ITHACA – 26 VIII–2 IX 1962.Google Scholar

13 Al-Qalqashandī, Subh al-a'shā…, ed. Ibrāhīm, Muhammad 'Abd al-Rasūl, 14 vols. (Cairo, 19131930), vol. 1, p. 477.Google Scholar

14 Hill, Donald R., ‘Information on Engineering in the works of Muslim Geographers’, History of Technology, 9 (London, 1984), pp. 127–42.Google Scholar

15 Hill, Donald R., Engineering in Classical and Medievel times, Croom Helm (London, 1984), pp. 164–65.Google Scholar

16 Hawqal, Ibn, Kitāb sūrat al-'ard (completed 378/988), ed. Kramers, J.H., 2nd. edn of vol. 2 of Biblioteca Geographorum Arabicorum (BGA) (Leiden, 1938), p. 222.Google Scholar

17 Al-Muqaddasī, Ahsan al-taqāsīm… (completed c. 380/990), ed. de Goeje, M.J., vol. 3 of BGA (Leiden, 1906), pp. 124–25.Google Scholar

18 Ibid., p. 409. The industrial uses of mills is an instance where many disparate sources must be combed in order to show that water-power was used for a number of purposes in Islam. To give but one example: al-Bīrūnī (362/973–440/1048), in his work on minerology, says that gold-bearing ores were crushed by water-powered trip hammers 'as is the case in Samarqand with the pounding of flax for paper’, Kitāb al-Jamāhir…, ed. Krenkow, F. (Hyderabad, Deccan, 1936), pp. 233–34.Google Scholar

19 Schiøler, Roman and Islamic Water-Lifting Wheels, pp. 79–83.

20 Cahen, Claude, ‘Le service de l'irrigation en Iraq au début du XI' siècle’, Bulletin d'études orientales, vol. 13 (19491951), pp. 117–43.Google Scholar

21 For example, al-Ukhuwwa, Ibn (d. 729/1329), Ma'ālim al-qurba, ed. Levy, R., with notes and an abridged English trans., Gibb Memorial Series, (London, 1938).Google Scholar

22 Al-Balādhurī (d. 279/892), Kitāb futüh al-buldān, ed. de Geoje, M.J. (Leiden, 1866), p. 363.Google Scholar

23 There is an index for the illustrations in the Persian MSS in the British Library: Miniatures from Persian MSS, Titley, Nora M. (London, 1977).Google Scholar

24 Hamarneh, Saleh, ‘Sugar-Cane Plantation and Industry under the Arab Muslims during the Middle Ages’, in Proceedings of the First International Symposium for the History of Arabic Science, IHAS, Aleppo (1976), p. 221.Google Scholar

25 Schiøler, Roman and Islamic Water-Lifting Wheels, pp. 90–96.

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