A Lesson In A History Of Technology
When the 16th century English courtier Sir John Harrington wrote his political allegory and critique entitled A New Discourse of a Stale Subject in 1596, he described in it a forerunner to the flush toilet installed in his home at Kelston.
Yet, had it not been for the invention of the tank fill valve, the flushing system could not have worked. Fixed inside the water tank ubiquitous with the modern lavatory, this device uses a float attached to the end of a lever to regulate the filling of the cistern.
In a 1,100 year-old manuscript of Kitab al-Hiyal (The Book of Ingenious Devices) being kept at Topkapi Palace Museum in Turkey, 9th century Muslim scientists and engineers known as Banu Musa first described and illustrated the mechanism’s design and operation.
Although a simple device, it provides a way to store water essential for residential homes as well as construction, manufacturing, and agricultural industries. Without it, urban expansion of human civilisation would not have happened as we know today.
Banu Musa were three brothers—Abu Ja‘far Muhammad, Abu al-Qasim Ahmad, and al-Hasan—whose collective expertise ranges from astronomy and mathematics to engineering and geometry. They were contemporaries of al-Khawarizmi (d. 850 CE) who invented algorithm and al-Kindi (d. 873 CE) who studied and introduced Greek philosophy to the Muslim world.
Deeply involved in politics and public works, Banu Musa was one of the forces in the Translation Movement that Caliph al-Ma’mun patronised, which actively collected, studied, translated, and discoursed works from the Greek, Persian, and Indian worlds.
They worked at the renowned centre of learning, Bayt al-Hikmah (The House of Wisdom), that Caliph Harun al-Rashid founded in Baghdad and employed influential scholars such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq and Thabit ibn Qurra to acquire and translate ancient scientific manuscripts.
Banu Musa suggested various applications for the system they contrived including drinking, washing, and even ablution. There is no doubt that Islam’s exhortation to strive for cleanliness and provide others with amenities as well as its technological imperatives inspired their creativity and innovation.
Under the patronage of the ‘Abbasid caliphs, Banu Musa designed and built wondrous things such as water fountains, automatic machines, and even a hurricane lamp “whose flame was shielded by a vane which always turned so that it was at right angles to the wind direction.”
Unfortunately, the Banu Musa brothers’ outstanding career was ended by an incident in the course of their employment under Caliph al-Mutawakkil to construct a canal for the new Ja‘fariyyah township adjacent to the Tigris riverbank in Samarra, Iraq.
Their subcontractor, Ahmad al-Farghani, a knowledgeable astronomer but an incompetent engineer, made gross error in calculations for the required levelling of the canal’s nilometer. This blunder led to the ruin of the entire project. Later, the caliph’s successor, al-Musta‘in, found Banu Musa to be vicariously liable and subsequently punished them.
It was the result of an ethical failure; the brothers had allowed favouritism to cloud their judgment for a better candidate. This episode demonstrated that corruption can happen either through commission or omission. It is also a testament that every unethical practice contains a potential for disaster.
Despite the scandal, Banu Musa’s distinguished role in the Translation Movement as well as their intellectual contributions can never be denied their place in the history of the Muslim greats.
Lest we condemn history for the disasters of the past, it should be remembered that today’s potential for similar failures still exists especially with the separation of science and technology from the realm of worldview, ethics, and society.
On the one hand, studying the past independently of the worldview and epistemic framework of the scientists and technologists results in the knowledge compartmentalisation of blinkered specialisations as well as the loss of a creative and innovative edge.
On the other hand, relegating ethics, which is critical in professional decision-making, to only a subject in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education risks producing graduates who are technically capable but susceptible to moral failings and corruption.
In a 2017 survey done by the Integrity Institute of Malaysia (IIM), it was revealed that a staggering 35% or one in every three local university students did not regard bribery as corruption.
For an example of a logical conclusion to this state of affairs, let us recall the Sampoong Department Store collapse in 1995 that left 502 people dead and 937 injured. The largest peacetime disaster until September 11 attack in 2001, its structural failure was the result of the corruption and criminal negligence of the responsible parties.
A closer example would be the roof collapse of the RM300 million Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium in 2009 where it was reported in the media that the builders did not follow the specifications.
Unless we weigh in fairly with hindsight the possible scenarios of our future, we would remain prone to making similar mistakes again. To quote the American philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”