Arab Inventions: Shaping Our World

1 Arab Invention That Shaped Our World

From the first university to the fountain pen, there are many surprising Muslim inventions that have helped shape our world. A 10th century scientist known as al-Haytham wrote a book on optics and explored the principles of the camera obscura, laying the foundation for modern cameras.

Arab inventors continue to leave their mark today. Over the past five years, 2,962 patent applications had an Arab name attached.

1. Water Clock

Arabs are often associated with negative stereotypes, but in reality, they have a rich history of inventions that have helped shape our world. Throughout the centuries, we have gained many tools that we rely on everyday thanks to the genius of arab inventors.

The water clock, a device that uses the flow of water to tell time, was invented in the third century B.C. Using a float, the constant flow of water would raise an indicator that displayed the time on a column. It also adjusted for seasonal changes in nighttime hours.

Likewise, the first pin-hole camera was credited to Ibn al-Haitham (known in Europe as Alhazen) who wrote a book on optics in the tenth century. He also explored optical illusions, the rainbow and camera obscura.

2. Crankshaft

The cam- and crankshaft inventions we depend on to get water, paper and oil from our taps are the work of Muslim engineer al Jazari. He also created a critical innovation that is central to the car engine — the crankshaft, which converts rotary motion into linear movement.

His Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices is filled with intricate water clocks, astronomical devices and a myriad other gadgets that make for fascinating playthings (see our previous story on this book’s impressive gizmos). But as a man from a modest background, he knew the needs of his patrons and designed several highly practical machines that facilitate drawing and irrigating water.

Other key Arab inventions of the Middle Ages include a water-raising machine that raised water from wells and an instrument for dissolving cat guts to stitch wounds – the inventor was a physician called al Zahrawi. His medical contributions included a 1,500 page illustrated encyclopedia of surgery, and he is also credited with the separation of conjoined twins.

3. Fountain Pen

The fountain pen was first invented in Egypt in 953 AD when the Sultan Ma’d al-Mu’izz complained about how messy using a standard quill pen made his hand and clothes. He asked for a pen that would hold ink inside of the reservoir and be able to be tilted without spilling. The inventor at the time was Daniel Schwenter who used one quill to hold the ink and a cork that sealed the other quill, creating a pen with two quills.

Leonardo da Vinci is thought to have used a fountain pen during the Renaissance, as two drawings of a more rudimentary version of the pen appear in his journals. Other Arab inventions that have impacted Europe include coffee, the lute and the qanun, an ancestor of the modern violin.

4. Three-Course Meal

The modern three course meal, hors d’oeuvres, entree and dessert, all trace their roots back to the ninth century and a Persian polymath called Ziryab. He insisted that meals be served in segments – starting with soup, then fish or meat, and finally something sweet such as fruit and nuts.

He also invented the tablecloth, encouraged people to use glassware at dinner and, inspired by a Chinese invention of saltpetre gunpowder, developed a more efficient rocket and torpedo that terrified Crusaders.

In a style that combines stunning photos with well-researched information, this book explores the wealth of contributions that the Arab world has made across a wide range of fields. The perfect introduction to a rich culture and its legacy.

5. Clock

From the astrolabe to sabti, the arab world has brought many important inventions to our modern life. The astrolabe, which is still used today, was improved by arab scientists with religion in mind, as they needed to calculate the precise time of sundown and dawn for prayer times and fasting.

The crank-shaft, central to most of our modern machinery, was invented by the arab engineer al-Jazari, who also designed a pump that could elevate water for irrigation, and the first ever combination lock. He wrote a book in the tenth century on optics, exploring optical illusions and developing the camera obscura.

From the sabti, to the lute and the rahab, the arab world has contributed much to the musical traditions of Europe. And the toothbrush, which was originally a twig from the meswak tree, used to clean teeth and freshen breath, is also attributed to an arab invention.

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