10 Inventions from Arab Inventors We Were Never Taught About

Forget Newton. You want to know who made revolutionary discoveries and advanced numerous concepts that we know today?

We all know of how Columbus explored the Americas (killing thousands of natives in the process, but that’s another story), of how Newton discovered gravity as an apple fell off a tree, of how Galileo improved the telescope (yes, improved not invented) and discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter.

But how many of us have heard of the legendary inventor Abbas Ibn Firnas who invented the first flying machine? Or of Fatima al-Fihri, who founded the world’s first university? Or of the greatest medical doctor of the Middle Ages, Al-Razi, whose 23-volume encyclopedias of medicine played a monumental role in the medical practices of later Europe?

Here is a list of 10 inventions (out of countless others) that we simply ought to know.

1. The First University

Fatima Al-Fihri (800–880 A.D.) was the daughter of a rich merchant. She built the world’s first universitythe University of al-Qarawiyyin (or Karueein) — in 859 AD in Fez (which is now Morocco). Initially begun as a mosque for educational purposes, this was the first degree-awarding university in the world, teaching a variety of subjects like Islamic Studies, Mathematics, Medicine, and Astronomy. According to UNESCO and Guinness World Records, it is the oldest operating university (preceding the University of Bologna by a century) and is also home to one of the oldest libraries on earth.

2. The First Flying Contraption

A thousand years before the Wright brothers invented the flying machine, Abbas Ibn Firnas — inventor, physician, chemist, engineer, musician, poet — successfully invented the first heavier-than-air flying contraption to be recorded in history. He also accidentally invented a precursor to the parachute, in 852, when he jumped off the minaret of the Grand Mosque of Cordoba with a cloak tightened with wooden struts. He didn’t fly then, but the cloth slowed his descent, as a parachute would.

It was in 875, when he was 70 years old, that he constructed his glider and stayed airborne for 10 whole minutes, and then crash-landed. It is assumed that his experiments served as an inspiration to Leonardo Da Vinci’s numerous drawings of flying devices.

3. Anaesthesia and Surgical Instruments

A part of al-Zahrawi’s book, On Surgery and Instruments, which contains illustrations of more than two hundred surgical instruments

Al-Zahrawi (936–1013 AD), the greatest surgeon of the Middle Ages, wrote a 30-volume encyclopedia of medical practices, parts of which remained the standard textbooks in Europe for more than five hundred years. He invented the method of administering an anaesthetic to patients by steeping a sponge in medical drugs and dabbing it in patients’ nostrils and lips, which was called Inhalation Anaesthesia.

He also invented over two hundred surgical instruments, most of which are still in use today, like scalpels, pincers, specula, curettes, lithotrites (for crushing bladder stones) and even the forceps used in extracting a dead fetus. He was the first to perform the migraine surgery and his book, On Surgery and Instruments, was the first illustrated book on surgery ever written.

The syringe was invented by the Iraqi surgeon Ammar ibn Ali al-Mawsili in the 9th century when he hollowed out a glass tube to remove cataracts from patients’ eyes using the tube’s suction.

4. Coffee

With over 400 billion cups sold annually, coffee has become an essential beverage in today’s world. While there are several accounts to how it was first discovered, the most widely-accepted story comes from 9th century Ethiopia, when a goat-herder named Khalid (or Kaldi) observed his goats chewing on some seeds and getting unnaturally excited.

Soon after, people began boiling the seeds, which gave a fragrant dark brown liquid. And so coffee became popular among the people and was exported to several other countries. But it was not brought to England until 1650 when a Turk opened a coffee shop in the City of London.

5. Hard Soap

Although a soap-like material was first used by ancient Babylonians in around 2000 BC, the first hard soap with a pleasant smell was manufactured in the Middle East during the Islamic Golden Age, combining vegetable oil with sodium hydroxide and aromatics like thyme oil. Several recipes for soap-making, which was then established as an industry, was described in detail by the Persian polymath Zakariya al-Razi (854–925), including the ways of separating glycerine from olive oil.

6. Algebra

Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, father of algebra — also considered to be the grandfather of computers for developing the concept of the algorithm in mathematics — was one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. He advanced the Arabic number system that we use today and developed the study of algebra as a separate science.

The word ‘algebra’ comes from the Arabic word ‘Al-jabr’. In his book, he introduced many fundamental methods of algebra still used by modern mathematicians, such as reduction, balancing, and the cancellation of like terms on opposite sides of the equation, while also explaining the first systemic solution for linear and quadratic equations such as the ‘completing the square’ method.

7. Fountain Pen

The first known record of a fountain pen comes from Al-Tamimi’s book, Kitab al-Majalis wa ‘l-musayarat, in 973 when a Fatimid caliph of Egypt demanded a pen that would not leave ink stains in his hand. He was given a pen with an ink reservoir inside it, which functioned when held upside-down with the help of gravity.

8. Cheques

The modern cheque — originating from the Arabic word saqq — was first used by 9th-century Muslim traders. It was a written vow for the payment of money upon the arrival of the goods at their intended destination, which meant that a trader travelling from Baghdad could cash his cheque in China. This greatly reduced the risk of having to carry large bags of coin through dangerous territories teeming with highwaymen.

9. Hydrochloric/Sulphuric Acids

Jabir ibn Hayyan (721–815) was a legendary polymath credited with thousands of works in a wide range of subjects such as alchemy, chemistry, medicine, cosmology, philosophy, etc. He discovered hydrochloric acid (HCl), sulphuric acid (H2SO4), nitric acid (HNO3), acetic acid (found in vinegar), and aqua regia, which is a combination of concentrated HCl and HNO3. He also invented the methods of distillation, crystallisation and filtration which are still used in chemistry today.

10. Crankshafts and Combination Locks

A crankshaft (GIF from NASA)

The crankshaft plays a central part in modern machinery. A simple device that converts the linear reciprocating motion of the pistons into rotational motion, and vice versa, it is the backbone of internal combustion engines. It was invented by Ismail al-Jazari, one of the three extremely talented Banu Musa brothers. Their book, The Book of Ingenious Devices, consists of a hundred illustrated mechanical instruments with detailed descriptions — including the combination lock — and some of them are still in use today.

Note:

A university is not a university unless it awards degrees, and the University of Al-Qarawiyyin was the first to do so and is recognized as such by UNESCO and the Guinness World Records.

The surgical instruments invented by Al-Zahrawi were ‘specialized’ instruments, to be used for specific surgeries. The article never mentions he invented all surgical instruments; nor does it say that surgical instruments were not used by surgeons before him.

The flying contraption invented by ibn Firnas is the first ‘recorded’ mention of a successful flight — even if it was for only ten minutes (which is still a remarkable feat, at a time when people could only dream of it, and it is mentioned in the article).

I’m sorry if I couldn’t extend the title to “10 Inventions, Discoveries and Advancements Made by Arab/Muslim Inventors, Scientists and Mathematicians” because it may be a ‘little’ too long.

Physics student. Under the inky-black sky, with a steaming cup of chai in my hands, I watch the stars and I write.

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