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In order for inventions to succeed and improve, engineers have to produce machines in the proper time and place. If an engineer wanted their invention to be successful, they had to produce a machine that would benefit the society, and invent it in a place where the object would be recognized. Al-Jazari did not have the benefits of a university and he was living in a society that was not capable of commercialization. Watt and Newcomen, display that it is possible to be successful, it is just important to have the right resources to do so. The society in which al-Jazari practiced engineering in, did not have the necessary coordination between practical and theoretical understanding of the world, needed to take advantage of his machines.

The Artuqids were a Turcoman Dynasty that descended from Artuq (Hill 3). The Artuqids were split up into two branches, each descending from two sons of the Artuq. The two branches were Ilghazi and Sukman. Al-Jazari worked for the king belonging to the Sukman branch. Al-Jazari served the family for 25 years as a chief engineer at the Artuklu Palace, and during this time, the king made him write his book The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (Hill 3). Al-Jazari was an engineer and inventor that created devices such as the water clock and other water raising machines. His devices were simple machines and they performed small tasks.

James Watt, on the other hand, was a successful engineer that is well known for his improvement on Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine. The University of Glasgow first hired Watt as a mathematical-instrument maker. Professors told him that he could do more than that with his life. Watt attempted to set up his own business at Glasgow but a corporation viewed him as an intruder on privileged ground. But, because he was friends with professors of the university, he went back. Anderson, a professor of Natural Philosophy, had a model of Newcomen’s steam engine in his classroom that he wanted fixed. He gave the model to Watt and by pure accident, Watt made something that revolutionized the world (Chambers 134).

Unfortunately, al-Jazari worked purely by trial and error because he lacked theory in how machines worked. Because of the fact that he did not have previous theories, people did not view his inventions as important. His machines were viewed more as ideas that had no purpose. When al-Jazari invented something, he started with an idea, and he tried it. If it did not work, he would try something new. Unlike al-Jazari, Watt worked with the faculty at Glasgow, and obtained his theories there. Professors at the university helped Watt and gave him a machine that needed improvement. Watt had something to work with, and was able to look at how the previous steam engine worked and what he could do to make it more efficient. He also had the opportunity of working in a university setting, which provided him with theories as well. Watt had the advantage of being able to work next to theorists. The University allowed this because they new that it was necessary to have theory when creating a machine. The university of Glasgow had access to mass-produced books, which provided a source for research. Al-Jazari did not have this same opportunity.

Al-Jazari was practicing engineering during a time when society lacked commercialization. Society did not allow for Jazari’s ideas to expand because there was no way to emphasize the favorable aspects of his inventions. Jazari used past devices and expanded those concepts but the society did not see profit from his devices. In his book, The Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, Hill states, “it seems likely that the patrons of medieval Islamic craftsman were only interested mainly in startling effects, ingeniously contrived, rather that in the mundane process of manufacture-a preference not confined to that class in that cultural area” (Hill 279). The Islamic society was only interested in machines that had startling effects. Watt was improving the steam engine, which was immensely important because it pumped water out of mines. Watt was fortunate in that he was creating this when mining was a fast growing industry. He had the benefit of commercialization because the product that he was improving was an essential machine.

When Watt began working for the university, he was working for himself. He was an independent worker with personal motivation. Watt wanted to be successful he had nobody giving him direction. He had a small room where he worked on the steam engine and it took him years. Al-Jazari on the other hand, was working for his king. He was an engineer specifically working for his king. His king told him to write The Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Because of the fact that Jazari was told to write his book, for the king, there was less chance of it getting out into the public. Watt, had personal motivation, and that was profit. It made him want to strive to create the most efficient steam engine. The fact that he worked for himself also allowed more freedom for Watt to do what he pleased on his own time. With al-Jazari working for the king, he was not granted this same freedom.

Al-Jazari’s works were lost because the world in which he practiced engineering, did not have proper understanding of new ideas. Al-Jazari did not have the tools necessary to make his inventions succeed in the world. He was working for a king and was not attending a university. The only thing he had that was close to theory was past inventions, but his idea of improving them was by trial and error. He was also inventing devices in a time where commercialization did not exist. Watt displays that with the correct tools and the right time period, it is possible to succeed as an engineer. Watt had the benefits of an education from a university and help from professors. Not only this, but Watt also was creating his inventions in a time when new ideas were widely accepted and admired. Watt also was improving an object that was going to improve the economy because it was benefiting a major industry.





al-Jazari; An Influential Engineer


Page Author: McKaney R. Short

Saturday, 11-Feb-2012 14:19



Baker, Christopher. Absolutism and the Scientific Revolution, 1600-1720: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. 278. Print.

Khan, Arshad. Islam, Muslims, and America: Understanding the Basis of Their Conflict. New York: Algora Pub., 2003. Print.

Hill, Donald R., and Al-Jazari Ibn-al-Razzaz. The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices = (Kitab Fi Ma (rifat Al-hiyal Al-handasiyya). Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1974. Print.

Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character. [S.l.]: J.B. Lippincott, 1900. Print.


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