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1001 innovations and inventions


Izwan Ismail journeys back in time to the Islamic Golden Age of science and technology

DID you know that flying machines, cameras, surgical instruments, algebra, the observatory, university, the globe, manned rocket and many other scientific findings were discovered by Muslim scholars and inventors a thousand years ago?

Names like Al-Zahrawi, Al-Khwarazmi, Ibn Sina, Abbas ibn Firnas, Zheng He, Al-Idrisi, Al-Jazari, Fatima al-Fihri and Ibn al-Haitham may not ring a bell to many people, but they were the brains that enlightened the period known as the Dark Ages of western civilisation.

It was the Golden Age of civilisation in the Islamic world, marked by innovation and creativity which formed the basis for many of today’s modern inventions.


For the first time, Malaysians will be able to see some of the early inventions and findings of these Muslim inventors at the 1001 Inventions exhibitions in Pusat Sains Negara in Bukit Kiara, Kuala Lumpur.

The exhibition, organised by Science Discoveries in partnership with Pusat Sains Negara and sponsored by Tourism Malaysia and Axiata Group, will be on till February, 2014. It then moves to other States over the next three years.
What visitors will see are some of the major inventions by Muslim inventors between 600 and 1600, and get a feel of the gadgets in interactive form.

According to Science Discoveries’ chief executive officer Sabariah Md Daud, the exhibits feature a range of inventions researched by more than 50 of the world’s leading academics from universities in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.


The exhibition is highly interactive, with state-of-the-art multimedia hands-on experience for visitors. Among the 60 interactive exhibits are the famous Al-Jazari’s elephant clock, Ibn al-Haitham’s camera obscura, Al-Zahrawi’s surgical instruments, Abbas ibn Firnas’ flying machine and Zheng He’s sea voyages.

The interactive factor is key to get visitors, especially school students, engaged with the subjects better. For example, visitors can interact with inventors like Al-Zahrawi and his team of surgeons who will guide them through a hands-on eye cataract operation using surgical tools he created.

Or learn to fly with instructions by Abbas ibn Firnas, the man who designed a flying machine hundreds of years before Leonardo da Vinci.

Before they enter the exhibition hall, visitors will be introduced to the wonders of the Muslim civilisation through an award-winning educational film, The Library Of Secrets, projected from a five-metre-high screen.

Told as a short story, the 10-minute movie follows the journey of young children during the historically mislabelled Dark Ages. This will give them a better understanding and appreciation when they enter the main exhibition.
Oscar-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley plays renowned 12th Century engineer Al-Jazari who introduces the wealth of innovation and advancement that occurred in the Muslim world from 7th to 17th Centuries.


The 1001 Inventions exhibition features a diverse range of exhibits, hi-tech games, interactive displays and dramatisation that bring to life historic role models from the Muslim civilisation.
“It’s not just about reading a description on a board as visitors will be able to actually interact with the inventors,” says Sabariah.

Suriani Ibrahim, a teacher at SK Convent (2) Bukit Nanas, Kuala Lumpur, says the exhibition gives a new perspective on how things or concepts originated.

“We used to learn about western inventions and didn’t know that many of the concepts and ideas of modern products come from Muslim civilisation,” she says. “Students really enjoy this kind of exhibition.”


Meanwhile, Science Discoveries’ operations director David Oh Seong Keat says the exhibition will boost the country’s tourism industry as it is a unique world class exhibition.

“1001 Inventions will also introduce the people to a world of science and technology that may inspire the younger generation to become the pioneering minds of tomorrow,” he says.

1001 Inventions was voted the world’s best touring exhibition by the Museum And Heritage Excellence Awards in London in 2011, and currently has more than three million online fans on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

Famous Muslim inventors

1. Al-Jazari: He invented the famous automatic elephant clock, consisting of a weight powered water clock in the form of an elephant. The various elements of the clock are in the housing on top of the elephant. They are designed to move and make a sound every 30 minutes.

2. Ibn al-Haitham: A great authority on optics in the Middle Ages who lived around 1000AD, he invented the first pinhole camera, (also called camera obscura) and was able to explain why images were upside down.

3. Al-Zahrawi: Considered the greatest medieval surgeon from the Islamic World, he is described by many as the father of modern surgery. His pioneering contributions to the field of surgical procedures and instruments have had an enormous impact in the East and West, well into the modern period, and some of his discoveries are still being applied in medicine to this day.

4. Fatima al-Fihri: In 859AD, a young princess named Fatima al-Fihri founded the first degree-granting university in Fez, Morocco. Her sister Miriam founded an adjacent mosque and together the complex became the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque And University.

5. Abbas ibn Firnas: The first person to make a real attempt to construct a flying machine and fly. In the 9th Century he designed a winged apparatus, roughly resembling a bird costume. In his most famous trial near Cordoba in Spain, Firnas flew upward for a few moments, before falling to the ground and partially breaking his back.


Students admiring one of the exhibits.

Students with Al-Jazari’s famous automatic elephant clock.

Zheng He’s 400ft-long ship compared with a smaller Christopher Columbus ship.

A student trying out an interactive surgical experiment using Al-Jazari tools.


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