Is an illustrated 13th century book Arab science fiction?
Or does it show real mechanical devices that were way ahead of their time?
Inside Topaki Palace, many of the most important artifacts are preserved in the archives. And one is so fragile that it is rarely brought into the light.
It is an illustrated manuscript, dated 1206 AD.
The cover identifies it as The Book of Ingenious Devices by Al Jazari.
Every page shows a drawing of a mechanical device. Some have a practical purpose, like raising water to irrigate a field, while others are more fanciful: mechanical people that appear to be intended to move and do tasks on their own.
In the book’s preface, Al Jazari claims that every drawing is of a device he made himself to bring delight to the Sultan’s court. But many have a level of complexity that seems impossible for the 13th century.
In the broadcast episode, historian Bert Hall and recreationist Chris Warrilow work together to build one of Al Jazari’s devices: a mechanical servant girl.
If she does what she is supposed to do, it will mean that a 13th century Arab designed history’s first working robot.
Were Al Jazari’s illustrations pipedreams? Or was his engineering far ahead of its time?
All is revealed in Museum Secrets: Inside Topkapi.
There is more about early Islamic science in another Museum Secrets episode: Inside Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. Here we reveal how Islamic science made its way to medieval Europe thanks to an inquisitive Holy Roman Emperor and his love for falconry.
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