1001 Inventions

October, 2010
By Ilmas Futehally

On a recent visit to Istanbul, I noticed a new structure in the historic Sultanahmet area where the Ayasofya, the Sultan Ahmet (Blue Mosque), the Hippodrome and several other imposing monuments are located. Some of these trace their history back to the 3rd century BC.  The new structure housed the 1001 Inventions exhibition that traces the forgotten story of a thousand years of science from the Muslim world from the 7th century onwards, and how it was impacted by discoveries from other civilizations- the Indian, Persian, Greek and Chinese.

On entering the exhibition I watched a film that showed the many technological feats that had been achieved in the Muslim world, including those that formed the precursors to modern day inventions such as the very film that I was watching. Ibn al Haytham, an eminent philosopher and mathematician observed light coming in from a small hole made in the shutters of a window. Further observation and experimentation led to the invention of the Camera Obscura, the first camera in history. This has led to the sophisticated digital imaging processes of today, including the making of films and their projection on screens, apart from the science of lasers, optics and bio-luminance.

The exhibition itself was an eye opener of a different kind. Beginning with the Elephant Clock, built about 800 years ago by al-Jazari, at a time when the Muslim world spread from Spain to Central Asia, the Clock not only tells the time, but brings together Greek water principles with an Indian water timing bowl set on an Indian elephant, topped by an Egyptian Phoenix and flanked by a Chinese dragon and Arabian figures, including that of the Emperor Saladin. The exhibition also covered inventions in the field of mathematics, libraries, medicine, hospitals, surgery and surgical instruments, town planning, architecture, code breaking and cryptography, weaponry, post and mail, astronomical instruments such as the Astrolabe, among many others.

On the Turkish Airways flight on the way back from Istanbul to Mumbai, I remembered that the first person to make an attempt to fly was Abbas ibn Firnas in the 9th century, and not the Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville, as is generally believed. Firnas was renowned as a poet, astrologer, musician and engineer, and his dream was to create a flying machine that was capable to carrying a human into the sky.  He managed a number of short flights over the desert region before attempting two famous flights in his home region of Cordoba. For his first flight, he wrapped himself in a loose cloak stiffened with wooden struts and jumped from the minaret of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. The cloak helped him to glide downwards, much as if he was wearing a parachute or seated on a hang-glider. He got away with minor injuries.

The next flight machine made by Ibn Firnas was from silk and eagle feathers. Taking off from a hill and watched by a large crowd of people, he flew to a significant height and stayed aloft for over ten minutes. He then plummeted to the ground and broke not only the wings of the machine, but one his own vertebrae. At this time, the seventy year old Firnas realized the role played by the tail of birds when they land - an observation that is very relevant to landing systems in flying machines of today. Thus, once again, as in the watching of the film, I realized that Ibn Firnas had been a little bit responsible for my ability to see and experience the exhibition in Istanbul!

However, there is a question which the exhibition fails to address - What happened to science, technology, invention and innovation in the Muslim world from the 16th century onwards, when Europe took over as the leading inventors in the world? (Even though scientists of the Muslim world helped lay the foundations of the European Renaissance). And perhaps even more important, what is the role of scientists in the Muslim world today?

In early 21st century, the 20 Arab countries combined, contributed roughly 0.55% of the world’s published scientific literature. From 1980 to 2000, only 370 patents were issued to inventors in nine Arab countries. In the same time span, South Korea received 16,328 patents. However, countries in the Middle East have recognized the need to encourage experimentation and innovation in science and technology. As a result, there has been a surge of Science and Technology parks in the region during the last few years. As of 2007, there were 30 parks dedicated to information and communication technology (ICT), 15 biotechnology parks and 12 engineering parks established in the Middle East. UAE and Turkey have the largest number of Science and Technology parks.

An interesting project, launched in the Arab World is a study to a sequence 100 Arab genomes at high resolution by the end of 2010. The project was launched in 2008 by Saudi Arabia and then taken over by the newly established Center for Arab Genomic Studies in the UAE. The project has tremendous potential for creating new diagnosis systems, as well as treatment plans. However, whether it will be able to revolutionize medicine as the great physician of the 9th century Al-Zahrawi did, remains to be seen.

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