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Many of the tools, utensils, and machinery we use today, as well as the majority of the initial knowledge that formed the basis for the industrial revolution and earlier inventions, are the work of a scholar who lived in Anatolia during the late 1100s- early 1200s.

Al-Jazari was a scholar born in Cizre in the neighbourhood of Tor, the present day Turkey, in 1153. We know very little about his life other than his inventions and what is written in the forewords of his books. Aside from his birthplace, all we know is that between the years of 1181-1206, he worked at a palace, in the service of the Artuqid Dynasty.

In almost every document written about Al-Jazarri, statements such as follows exist: “He was the founder of the field of cybernetics and was its first genius. He was a physicist, mathematician, expert in robots and matrixes, and an engineer.” This lengthy description includes words like ‘cybernetics’ and ‘matrixes’ that may sound foreign for those not familiar with the subject. As a branch of knowledge covering the control, communication and function of living creatures and machines, cybernetics examines the similarities in the functioning of living creatures and self-regulating and self-operating machines and develops a ‘general machine theory’. A matrix, on the other hand, is a mathematicl term for a table of addable or multipable abstract quantities. It should be noted that the term ‘cybernetics’ was first used in 1834 by the French mathematician and physicist Andre-Marie Ampere, whereas the first isntance of its being used in its current sense was in a book by American mathematician-philosopher Norbert Wiener, the founder of modern cybernetics, in 1948-around 750 years after Al-Jazari!

Al-Jazari’s book, Kitab fi marifeti’l-hiyeli’l-hendesiyye (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices), contains detailed information about numerous mechanisms that he himself designed and developed with the aim of using in daily life. The clues as to why Al-Jazari was considered to be a scientist ahead of his times are found in this book. While he was working on the inventions described therein, Europe was stil in the Middle Ages. Cities were just beginning to arise, the military campaigns of the Crusade that aimed to retake Jerusalem were continuing, and the church, by constructing magnificent cathedrals, was continuing to stres that it was still the highest authority around. Scientific enquiry was limited, and various diseases were running rampant across the continent.

According to the texts penned by Al-Jazari, in general, he would first introduce a device; then, he would explain the production process, one-by-one describing the parts and how they were to be fit together; finally, he gave instructions as to how to operate the device. This is how Al-JAzari explains the preliminary research he conducted: “I looked over the books of the wits who had come way before me as well as the work of their followers…Finally, I freed myself of this exchange, sloughed off the work of others, and was able to see the problems with my own eyes…I realised that every technical science that cannot be transformed into practice is suspended between truth and falsehood.”

Working with a love of knowledge, Al-Jazari certainly had no idea what affect he would have on the future. His designs, which he laid dowon in his drawings, became a part of our trains, cars, ships, power plants and all those complicated systems that have becoe part of our Daily life in the 21st century. How can we not conclude that the one thing connecting them is “The Book of Knowledge of Ingeneious Mechanical Devices”, the 400-page volüme containing the 50-60 drawings by Al-Jazari, a scholar who was ahead of his time?

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Ayse Kok
Ayse has over 8 years of experience in the field of social, mobile and digital technologies both from a practitioner and from a researcher perspective. She participated in various projects in partnership with international organizations such as UN, NATO and the EU. Ayse also acted as an adjunct faculty member in her home town Turkey. Ayse attended various international conferences as a speaker and published several articles in both peer-reviewed journals and academic books. She completed her master and doctorate degrees at both University of Oxford and Cambridge in UK.

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