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How the Banu Musa Brothers From Ninth Century Baghdad Laid the Foundations for Modern Mechanics

Don’t you hate it when you’re less than halfway through the month and you’ve already spent all your money on food, clothes and eBay? There are still two and a half weeks until payday, and you’re going to have to live off £7.98 and a strained overdraft until then. This is the moment where you look back on your life and think ‘why am I not a millionaire?’ ‘Why didn’t I invent something genius? Like Snapchat. Or avocado toast?’

If it makes you feel any better, which it won’t, the minds behind those modern money-spinning creations have nothing on the Banu Musa siblings, three bros from ninth century Baghdad who invented hundreds of devices, many of which set the foundations for modern mechanics and hydraulics. We bet they were never broke.

We recently learned about the brotherly scholars when a pal of Ummahsonic told us about their invention opus, the Book of Ingenious Devices. The tome features one hundred creations by the brothers, namely Muhammad, Ahmad, and al-Hasan. They cover fields as diverse as automation, astronomy and even musical instruments. Their influence has been far-reaching, so let’s check some out and attempt to handily relate them to modern day stuff.

Banu Musa

A page from the Book of Ingenious Devices. Credit: The MAD Museum.

Automatic Crank

Much of the brothers’ masterwork focused on hydraulics. By harnessing the movement of water between various mechanisms, the bros created automatically operated cranks, a bit like the crankshaft found in a car’s engine. Naturally, the Banu Musa crank wouldn’t kickstart a 1996 Vauxhall Nova, but it could operate without manual force. Which is a big deal.

Valves

Another of their inventions contained a conical valve, the kind found on bathroom taps. Were it not for the Banu Musa brothers, you’d be halting the water flow from the taps in your kitchen sink with a plug.

Clamshell Grab

Your boys were also behind the clamshell grab, the kind you see affixed to every JCB digger on any building site in the country. Specifically, the brothers’ invention was designed to dredge objects from underwater, meaning it has had an enormous influence on canal-based engineering. Given the importance of canals in the realm of shipping and transportation, it’s not a stretch to say that the bros’ early invention has had a fairly significant influence on international development.

Astronomy

While the Book of Ingenious Devices doesn’t actually include any of the brothers’ work in the field, they were also experts in astronomy. They did pioneering work in the field of degrees (as in, 90, 180 and 360), much of which was gleaned from their observations of the sun and the moon. In fact, their willingness to sit in the desert in Mesopotamia and stare at the sky allowed them to conclude that a year lasts for 365 days and six hours.

Now that really is how you leave a legacy. Though we doubt they got paid for that one tbh.

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