Banu Musa Ingenuity Revisited as Mystery of Prehistoric Flute Solved

inventor brothers in 9th century baghdad were centuries ahead of their time

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Islam’s Golden Age brought over 100 genius inventions by three brothers. A ruler with a taste for learning and extravagance made it possible. Among them was a steam-powered, automatic flute.

Close up of conch shell
Originally thought to be a ceremonial cup, a 17,000-year-old seashell found in a French cave in 1931 actually seems to have been modified to be used like a trumpet. Photo By anthony pietrafesa / Shutterstock

In the 9th century CE, Baghdad flourished creatively and scientifically under the rule of the ingenuity minded Sunni Muslim caliph al-Mamun. Inventions during his lifetime were brilliant for the era in which they were created, harkening back to the recently solved mystery of a 17,000-year-old seashell horn found 90 years ago in France.

As hard as it is to believe that a sophisticated musical instrument could be designed c. 15,000 BCE, the scientific and cultural creations of Islam’s Golden Age rival the musical instrument for their own time period. Al-Mamun noticed three brothers known as the Banu Musa—meaning “Sons of Musa”—and commissioned them to live lives of invention and learning in Baghdad.

Amazingly, their 1,200-year-old inventions include a hydro-powered mechanical organ and a steam-powered, programmable, automatic flute. The Banu Musa were like the da Vinci of their day.

Three Heads Are Better Than One

In his video series The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age, Professor Eamonn Gearon, Professorial Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, said that al-Mamun took the Banu Musa brothers—Muhammad, Ahmed, and al-Hassan—under his wing after their father died. He moved them to Baghdad to pursue their interests.

Each [brother] had a broad Islamic and scientific education and grew up to specialize and excel in a particular field—one in astronomy, another in mathematics, the third in engineering,” Professor Gearon said. “When they brought their heads together, the collective expertise was quite formidable.”

According to Professor Gearon, al-Mamun and at least three of his successors as caliph gave the brothers free rein to express their creativity, due to a long-lasting period of stability and prosperity in the region.

“And so the Banu Musa, or Sons of Moses, were employed at the royal court for decades, working on engineering projects, astronomical projections, and in creating scores of complex toys and other automatic devices, to entertain the caliphs and members of the royal household.”

The Book of Tricks

The Banu Musa wrote 20 books, most of which have been lost to history, but one, whose title translates to The Book of Tricks, remains. In it lie several translations of ancient designs from foreign lands, but also a plethora of original inventions the brothers deemed worthy of print.

“Automatic water fountains are one area [in] which the Banu Musa excelled,” Professor Gearon said. “These playful fountains are exactly the sort of thing one sees today in public spaces around the world, and which raise a smile from children and adults alike. By installing different nozzles, the Banu Musa fountains allowed different patterns of water jets to shoot into the air.”

They also developed a hydro-powered mechanical organ, one of history’s first mechanical musical instruments. The organ was similar to a large music box, featuring changeable cylinders with raised pins. Its European counterparts wouldn’t appear for another 700 years. Another, a steam-powered mechanical flute resembling a man playing a flute, is said to be the earliest programmable machine ever created.

Not all their inventions were strictly designed for play.

“Among the Banu Musa’s more practical inventions was an industrial device we now call a clamshell grabber,” Professor Gearon said. “It typically is used in dredging silted water. Suspended from a mechanical arm, the clamshell grabber is used to clear away muddy deposits from a river bottom, bay, or similar shallow body of water that needs to be kept clear for purposes of navigation.”

They also created a gas mask for civilian use, intended to help men of the day clear out polluted wells.

While all significant cultural findings have historical importance, sometimes a tinkerer will rise significantly above their peers and create something of wonder, whether it be a 17,000-year-old seashell horn or a 9th-century music box.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily