They surprised the mediaeval world with their water jets, oil lamps and lifting machines – all equipped with automatic control systems.
Three orphaned brothers were lauded as magicians in 9th-century Baghdad. But it wasn't magic that made them famous, but rather their impressive knowledge of the science of mechanics.
Under the moniker ‘Banu Musa’, meaning sons of Musa, the three brothers — Mohammed, the eldest, followed by Ahmed and Hasan, the youngest of the three — authored more than 20 books on science.
They are credited with producing definitive works on geometry and astronomy. While the three brothers showed a great ability to put their theoretical knowledge into practice, they also benefited from The House of Wisdom, a knowledge centre that is equivalent to today's Oxford or Harvard. The brothers were admitted to the House of Wisdom after losing their father, Musa ibn Shakir, and quickly gained immense wealth and influence, thanks to their late father's close association with Caliph Al Mamun.
The brothers employed several translators, whom they paid 500 dinars a month. The translators helped them gain access to the treasure trove of knowledge — from the works of ancient Greek polymaths to mediaeval-era mathematicians.
Many historical accounts on 9th-century philosophers and thinkers claimed that the Musa brothers were influenced by the works of Greek mathematicians Hero and Philo.
Nearly 100 of their inventions are described in the Kitab al Hiyal. While some of these inventions may have been influenced by the designs of Hero and Philo, many of them were wholly original. The singular engineering genius the brothers possessed was remarkable, and they not only improved upon the developments of Greek and other ancient engineers, but also devised novel methods and designs.
The mechanical devices they built using the Greek concept of “automata” ranged from trick vessels and gadgets consisting of 15 automatic control systems to seven water jets, three oil lamps, one bellow and a lifting mechanism system.
The trio is also believed to be the pioneers of the first programmable machine– an automatic flute player.
Among their original inventions was a feedback controller and an automatic hydro powered organ.
The brothers also made an immense contribution to the field of geometry –specifically in the numerical approach to area and volume. While the Greek mathematicians had thought of these concepts in quantitative terms, equating them in ratio, the Musa brothers defined them in numbers. The brothers are also credited with having founded the first Arabic-language school of mathematics.
To pay homage to the brothers, an observatory in Baghdad was named after them, where Ursa Major, a bear-like constellation of stars, was observed.
The Musa brothers were an integral part of the House of Wisdom — an intellectual powerhouse that made great contributions to humanity. Its scholars not only built upon thousands of years of scientific work inherited from ancient European thinkers, but also improved on the works of the Persians, Sumerians and Indians in the East.
The immense knowledge left by the House of Wisdom between the 8th and the 13th centuries played a key role in shaping the intellectual and scientific traditions of Europe.