History Mesh

Automatic Flute Player (9th Century)

The Banu Musa, three brothers working in Baghdad in the ninth century AD, invented an “automatic flute player” which appears to have been the first programmable machine. The flute sounds were produced through hot steam and the user could adjust the device to various patterns so that they could get various sounds from it.

Relation to Computing:

Towards the end of the first millennium, mechanical computation moved on from tools designed either to perform very specific calculations, such as the astronomical calculators of Ancient Greece, or devices such as the abacus which provided shortcuts for people doing more complex calculations themselves.

The advent of machines that could be reprogrammed, albeit still in a limited way, set the stage both for the automatic machines such as the Jacquard Loom adopted in the second Industrial Revolution (** I think) and for the more generalised computing machines made possible in the twentieth century, and which lead to you reading this right now.

Relation to Automatons:

Imagine the wonder of first seeing the Banu Musa’s musical instruments, perhaps their flautist that could play different tunes — and which could be taught new tunes that were written specially for it. Or maybe after dinner with a leading patron of the mechanical arts you’d be entertained by their organ, its complex polyphony rising above the susurration of the water that powered it.

Not content with just the automatic flute, they also created automatic fountains, hurricane lamps, mechanical grabs, and an automatic dispenser that alternated between hot and cold water – inventions that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern home.

Read more about Automatic Flute Player on Wikipedia.