Who Invented The Robot- Arabs or Japanese?

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I am sure that everyone has seen the movie ‘I, Robot’. The masculine, heart-throbbing Will Smith in his high-tech mechanical limb saves the world from crazy robot takeover. Not only girls but boys too fantasize being in an action movie like that – with a hero like that. Amazing!

Apart from imagining being a hero,with a plastic perfect girlfriend on one side and the responsibility to save the world from robots on the other side,have we tried and looked beyond what is fed to us? I mean the robots.The reason I gave the example of the movie ‘I, Robot’ is to make you think that how much we know about robots.Most of you (the computer geniuses or those good at playing video games)will say, ‘Of course, we know plenty about them,’ or, ‘We keep ourselves up to date with DARPA robotics challenge or World Robot Olympiad etc.,held in various countries around the globe’. But is that really all?

Figure 1: The Elephant Clock. From The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Ibn-al-Raz-zaz Al-Jazari (1136-1206)

Will it surprise you if I say that the first robot was made by a Muslim scientist? Yes, you heard that right. It was a Muslim scientist, Ismail Al-Jazari,who made the first ever robot. Now imagine the time it was made. It was the sixth century Hijri (12th-13th century A.D.) when a man was successful in making a humanoid machine and it is the 21st century now. Mind blowing, right? So how come in today’s world, Japan is considered the father of robotics. How did it ever come to that? Well, read to find out.

Al-Jazari was born in Al-Jazira situated between the Tigris and Euphrates. In 1174, he started working under the ruling family of Banu Artaq for the next 25 years. After that, upon the instigation of Prince Nasir-al-Din Mahmud, a caliph of the Artuqid dynasty, Turkey, he was made the chief engineer. He also authored A Compendium on the Theory and Practice of the Mechanical Arts in which he described, with instructions, his work of about 100 mechanical devices. Most of them were trick vessels of different varieties. So, you see he was a special kind. Al-Jazari mentioned in his book that the Caliph asked him for a machine that would help him perform ablution for prayers instead of asking the servants for it. And so, Al-Jazari came up with a wonderful idea of a mobile robot. The machine was in the shape of a servant that carried a towel in one hand and a pitcher of water in the other hand. The robot had a bird on its turban which twittered when the time of prayer came. The robot moved towards the Caliph and poured water in certain amounts. After the ablution, the robot gave the Caliph the towel and upon the twittering of the bird again the robot went back to its place (figure 1). Similarly, most of his work revolved around the complex mechanisms of clocks which forms the basis of today’s robot technology.

Now, here comes the main story.Many years after, in 1887, the Japanese Emperor’s nephew, Prince Komatsu reached Istanbul on a battleship. He presented some gifts to the Sultan of that time, Abdul Hamid Han and negotiated with him. This impressed the Japanese Emperor Meiji so much that,in 1889, he sent private ambassadors to Istanbul. Along with them, he sent various gifts, among which was the Great Krizantem Medal; the greatest medal of the Japanese to be presented to the Sultan and a confidential letter.In the letter, he requested the Sultan to send information about Islam, charity, funds, science and technology in French or the Japanese language.

The matter was brought up to Shaykhul-Islam Cemaleddin Effendi. It was decided to send the illuminated Holy Quran and other gifts in the first stage and more time was asked from the Japanese Emperor to send the information they sought, in the second stage.

During this time, Sultan Abdul Hamid Han gathered the best clock master of his time, Musa Dede (pronounced as Deed) and asked him to make a unique technological clock that had never been made before. Musa Dede gathered his best men (later known as the 7 masters) to make a team. After a few days, when the team was summoned in front of the sultan, only the paper work had been done. It was decided that the clock would be of the shape of a whirling dervish. Every hour it will open its arms on both sides and ring. But the sultan had something else in mind. Instead of ringing, the robot was designed to be made to recite the Aazaan (call to prayer). That was a huge task for the 7 masters. Because the cuckoo and gong clocks with variety of music could be set with mechanic plates and bellows but the Aazaan was a human sound. How could an Aazaan giving machine ever be made? Luckily, the gramophone was in existence at that time. Thanks to Edison who made a phonograph apparatus in 1877. That made it possible for the 7 masters to make an Aazaan reciting machine.

Phew!

Soon after that, a regular human sized robot was made. And it wore a skirt.Yes! A silver plate skirt which, in every new hour whirled as the robot opened both its arms on each side and the Aazaan was recited. The voice of the Aazaan resonated from the loopholes above the skirt. The mechanism was so smooth and awe-inspiring that when the Aazaan ended, the robot went back to its previous place, lowered its arms and skirt. It was thoroughly covered in gold and silver. Sultan Abdulhamid Han gave it the name of ALAMET meaning; miracle. It was a miracle indeed (figure 2).

Figure 2: ALAMET

A miracle of the Muslim world, the first ever Aazaan reciting robot, along with other gifts, were shipped from Istanbul in 1889 to Japan’s Yokohoma Port. The ambassadors of the Sultan were met with glorious ceremonies held by the Japanese Dynasty. Unfortunately, the same ship never returned to Istanbul.

The story does not end here. Japanese a nation of curious beings. They are always ready to learn and explore more and more. Just like aerospace technology. Japan has one of the best fighter plane brands in the entire world. Do you think they got this far on their own? No, they acquired this technology from Germany. Japanese scientists were so smart that, after one single visit to Germany’s plane manufacturing factory, they were able to make their own war planes. Just like that, inspired from Alamet, Seiko Co(a famous watch company) was established in 1881 and Seikosha clock factory was established in 1892 and it introduced the first alarm clock in1899. From one single Aazaan reciting robot, Japan became the first ever country to make Aazaan reciting clocks.

In today’s world, Muslims are lagging in almost everything. Our youth is busy running after the West unaware of the dead end that lies ahead. Our books and syllabi do not teach our young ones about our glorious history. If I ask you to take your mobile phones and type Muslim scientists and their discoveries on Google, you will be amazed at the results that you will get. From soap to coffee, flying machines to cameras, almost everything has been made and discovered by our great Muslim ancestors. It is high time that we realize our true importance and stop copying or following the West and bring into existence our real worth and value to this world. I am sure, next time when you sit down to see a movie comprising your favorite actor/actress, apart from getting entertained, you will also try to perceive the hidden ideas and technology that resonate back to the discoveries of our ancestors.

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