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The reason that your phone has a camera
Anisa Virjee
11 April 2014
  • Born in 965 CE, Ibn al-Haytham is considered by many to be the world’s first scientist. He also invented the camera obscura, the earliest avatar of the modern digital camera that you carry around in your pocket.

  • Ibn al-Haytham was a Fatimid-era scholar and polymath who wrote over 200 scientific works in subjects like astronomy, mathematics, medicine, optics, philosophy, and physics. Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Ibn al-Haytham was a Fatimid-era scholar and polymath who wrote over 200 scientific works in subjects like astronomy, mathematics, medicine, optics, philosophy, and physics. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

    What, you may wonder, does a man who lived a thousand years ago, have to do with the camera in your phone? Everything.

    Born in 965 CE, Ibn al-Haytham is considered by many to be the world's first scientist. He also invented the camera obscura, the earliest avatar of the modern digital camera that you carry around in your pocket.

    Known in the Western world as Alhazen, he is considered to be the first scientist because his are the oldest recorded writings describing what we know today as the scientific process: devising a hypothesis, and using physical experiments or mathematical proofs to affirm or reject it. Until recently, much of the Western world believed that this scientific method was developed independently by scholars of the European renaissance beginning in the 12th or 13th centuries. It is now widely acknowledged that Muslim scientists like al-Haytham, al-Biruni and Ibn Sina were applying this approach in the 11th century to a variety of fields of study, including optics, mineralogy, and medicine.

    Al-Haytham worked for many years under the patronage of the Ismaili Imam and Fatimid Caliph Hazrat al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, in Cairo. It was in following the scientific method of physically testing his hypothesis of how the eye works that he discovered the camera obscura, which is the latin term for a dark room or box with a hole in it through which light shines, projecting an image from one side to the other. This is also known as the pinhole camera.

    Although the principles of the camera obscura existed since before his time, Ibn al-Haytham was the first scholar to clearly understand, analyse and use these principles. The earliest clear description of this concept, and also the principles of refraction of light, were found in al-Haytham's Kitab al-Manazir (known in English as The Optics). It is this understanding of vision that led to the invention of the modern camera.

    Ibn al-Haytham wrote over 200 scientific works in subjects ranging from astronomy, medicine, and mathematics to philosophy, but his greatest achievements are attributed to the field of physics and optics. He is best known for Kitab al-Manazir and his pioneering work in physics earned him the nickname ‘The Physicist' in medieval Europe. The Aga Khan University honours his critical contributions to the study of the process of sight, the structure of the eye, and how we see by the establishment of the Ibn-e-Haitham Professorship. The university also plans to establish an academic department in Ophthalmology.

    This article was adapted from its original publication in the March 2014 edition of The Ismaili India magazine.