Banu Musa: Meet the 9th-century orphaned Muslim brothers who reinvented mechanics

Banu Musa brothers
5 min read
25 July, 2023

Ninth-century Baghdad hailed three orphaned brothers as magicians. However, the secret to their fame was not magic but rather their impressive understanding of mechanics.

The three brothers — Mohammed, the eldest; Ahmed, the second youngest; and Hasan, the youngest — wrote more than 20 science books under the moniker 'Banu Musa'.

Several of their works are considered definitive works of geometry and astronomy. They showed a remarkable ability to apply theoretical knowledge to practice and benefited from The House of Wisdom, the famed intellectual knowledge centre.

Following the passing of their father, Musa ibn Shakir, the brothers were able to accumulate significant wealth and influence at The House of Wisdom thanks to his close relationship with Caliph Al Mamun.

"While their inventions were influenced by the works of Greek mathematicians, the Musa brothers also demonstrated their ingenuity by devising original methods and designs. They are also believed to be the pioneers in creating the first programmable machine, an automatic flute player they invented"

In exchange for five hundred dinars a month, the brothers employed several translators. Their translator's efforts paved the way for them to access knowledge from ancient Greek polymaths to medieval mathematicians.

According to many historical accounts, they were influenced by the works of Greek mathematicians, namely Hero and Philo in the 9th century.

In the Kitab al Hiyal, (The Book of Ingenious Devices— which is the trio's most renowned work, more than a hundred of their inventions are described.

In the book, the Banu Musa brothers describe a myriad of mechanical devices, ranging from trick vessels to automatic control systems and gadgets compromising fifteen automated control systems, in addition to seven water jets, three oil lamps and a lifting mechanism system.

While their inventions were influenced by the works of Greek mathematicians, the Musa brothers also demonstrated their ingenuity by devising original methods and designs. They are also believed to be the pioneers in creating the first programmable machine, an automatic flute player they invented.

The Musa brothers introduced a feedback controller and an automatic hydro-powered organ among their original inventions.

Additionally, they made significant contributions to the field of geometry, particularly in the numerical approach to area and volume.

While Greek mathematicians had previously considered these concepts quantitatively and expressed them through ratios, the Musa brothers defined them using precise numerical values. Their contributions extended beyond inventions, as they also founded the first Arabic-language school of mathematics.

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While Hero and Philo's designs may have influenced some of these inventions, as mentioned above, a significant portion of them were entirely original. The remarkable engineering genius possessed by the Musa brothers allowed them to enhance the developments of Greek and other ancient engineers and devise novel methods and designs.

Their achievements were more expansive than the ones mentioned above. Still, Banu Musa Brothers also measured the circumference of the earth, accomplished by walking the distance on a marked route for a one-degree shift in altitude of the Pole Star (which they did at two locations for accuracy).

The trio reported a circumference of 24,000 miles, which is slightly less than the modern figure of 24,902 miles. Individually and as a team, they also published noted treatises on geometry and mathematics, timekeeping, the nature of speech, and other topics.

In addition to their mechanical and other prowesses, the Banu Musa brothers made significant contributions to the field of geometry. Their book on The Measurement of Plane and Spherical Figures became a foundational work that influenced Islamic and European mathematicians for centuries to come. Its detailed explanations and formulas provided a solid framework for understanding geometric concepts and furthering mathematical knowledge.

The impact of the Banu Musa brothers' scientific endeavours cannot be overstated. Their pioneering works in mechanics, astronomy, and geometry set the stage for future advancements in these fields. Their influence extended far beyond their time, inspiring subsequent generations of Muslim scientists, including the renowned Al-Jazari. Moreover, their contributions played a pivotal role in the transmission of knowledge between cultures and laid the groundwork for Europe's industrial revolution.

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In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the remarkable achievements of the Banu Musa brothers. Scholars and historians have delved deeper into their works, shedding light on their scientific methodology and the intricate details of their inventions. Their contributions have garnered recognition from the scientific community, reaffirming their status as pioneers of science and innovation.

To honour their legacy, an observatory in Baghdad was named after the Musa brothers, where they observed Ursa Major, a constellation resembling a bear. The Musa brothers held a crucial position within the House of Wisdom — an intellectual powerhouse that substantially contributed to humanity.

The scholars associated with this institution built upon millennia of scientific knowledge inherited from ancient European thinkers and refined the works of Persians, Sumerians, and Indians in the East.

Between the 8th and 13th centuries, the profound knowledge cultivated within the House of Wisdom played a key role in shaping Europe's intellectual and scientific traditions, leaving a nonerasable mark on human progress.

Dr Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, academic, and journalist. His research areas and interests include Libya, the foreign policy of Turkey, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict and history

Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat