The Banu Musa and the Book of Ingenious Devices, 850.
So during the 800s, under the Abbasid Caliphate, there was a university in Baghdad that was called the House of Wisdom. It was initially founded as a center for the study and propagation of translation, particularly of the Greek and Roman classics, but pretty rapidly the priorities of the collected academics turned to such topics as “but these medical documents haven’t been properly peer-reviewed,” “I really feel the world needs another book of sexy poems about God,” “you know these histories leave out whole countries and if you give me tons of silver I can probably go explore the crap out of those places,” and “look what I can make.” The Banu Musa, or sons of Musa, were three brothers who enthusiastically fell into that last category.
Musa was an ex-highwayman in Khorasan who somehow became friends with the future caliph al-Ma’mun and signed on as a court astronomer. He prevailed on the Caliph to take in his kids when he tragically died young in some sort of stargazing and/or robbery accident, and the Caliph duly handed them off to the university, where they flourished through, apparently, spending huge amounts of money on Greek translations and successfully measuring the circumference of the Earth. (They were scooped to this by Aryabhata, among others, but I do like the story of al-Ma’mun asking the House of Wisdom what Ptolemy said the circumference of the Earth was. 180,000 stadia, the translators explained, proudly. What’s a stadium? al-Ma’mun asked. Uh, said the translators. “This does not tell us what we need to know,” al-Ma’mun said, presumably rather dryly, and dispatched them to measure the Earth.) They also appear to have measured the length of the year and, in their spare time, invented the gas mask.
They are most famous for building robots, though. Some of you are probably going like “WAY TO BURY THE LEDE! Surely the title of this article should be ROBOTS!!!!!”, but automata weren’t invented in our period, like, not even close—they date practically back to the wheel. No, no, the Banu Musa were simply some of many people during the “Dark Ages” casually building
robots automated devices for profit but mostly fun. They invented the player piano, automatic Vegas-style fountains, a self-trimming lamp (pictured above), and a ton of toys. Their work was hydraulic; my favorite manifestation is probably the automatic flute player, which worked by blowing hot steam through a flute and was programmable one thousand years before the invention of the Jacquard loom.
This would all be totally overshadowed in three hundred years when al-Jazari and his musical robot band showed up. Watch this space.