Muslim scholar and inventor Abbas ibn Firnas (810–887) became known as the first person to launch a one-person controlled air flight in rigging of his own design. Firnas developed other inventions and was a learned person in astrology, astronomy, engineering, poetry, and music.
Abbas ibn Firnas is recorded as the first person to successfully attempt human flight. That does not mean that he soared high and far, however: his rigging only included a flight suit and facsimiles of wings. Firnas's experimental flight was short and dangerous, and it led to injury. Still, his name remains linked to other inventors, such as Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519), who looked skyward, saw possibilities, and helped pioneer aviation.
As he grew older, Firnas attained a high level of learning. He was a polymath, a person of wide-ranging knowledge, curiosity, and interests who became an expert in a variety of subject areas. He was not only an aviation pioneer and inventor, but also an engineer, physician, poet in the Arabic language, and musician, and he also studied physics. In addition to manufacturing an early form of glass, he is credited as inventing a rudimentary metronome.
According to some accounts from the ninth century, Firnas's interest in aeronautics and human flight was sparked during a demonstration performed by a stunt man, Armen Firman, who made his living performing stunts in public places. The presence of Firman in the story of Firnas has caused some speculation; in The Esoteric Codex: The Alchemists, Ervin Reffner joins other scholars in speculating that Armen Firman “may be the Latinized name of Abbas Ibn Firnas”; “the lack of any mention in [17th-century Moroccan scholar] al-Maqqari's account may point to synthesis.” In other words, Firman and Firnas may actually have been one and the same.
In any event, in 852, Firman was designing a new entertainment, and he built for himself a crude, early flight machine. Even though he was not an engineer or scientist, he had a basic understanding of the mechanics of flight, having gained this knowledge by observing the natural world. His flight machine consisted of a suit of woven silk, to which were attached wood reinforced rods that would serve as his wings.
During his demonstration, Firman carried his machine to the top of a minaret (a tall, thin tower) that was situated on the city's grand mosque. He put on his gear and jumped. The machine, still untested, did not have the capability of supporting Firman's weight against the pull of gravity, and the ersatz inventor nose-dived to the ground. Firman was lucky, however. His machine's wings opened just enough to slow the speed of his fall, and he suffered only minor injuries, salted, most likely, with humiliation. Essentially, Firman had not developed a flight machine, but his device did operate in a manner that suggests a parachute.
Firnas was among the gathered spectators who watched Firman's unscientific spectacle. Despite the man's failure, he came away impressed. He could see that Firnan's contraption tapped a possibility that warranted further study and experimentation.
Occupied with numerous projects, it would take Firnas almost 25 years to build his own flight machine. After witnessing Firman's demonstration, he spent the next two decades studying the elements of flight. Finally, in 875, at age 65, he finished building his version of a manned machine. Using similar materials as those used in constructing Firman's flight gear, Firnas constructed a set of two wings using woven silk fabric and lengths of lightweight wood. To hedge his bets, he sewed bird feathers into his body suit.
To test his design, Firnas went into a hilly environment, the Mount of the Bride (Jabal al-’Arus) in the Rusafa area, near Côrdoba, Spain. Standing near a cliff, he donned his prototype flight suit and launched himself into the air. He had invited a large crowd to witness his attempt at flight, and according to witnesses, he glided in the air for about ten minutes and then headed back toward the top of the cliff, making a full-circuit flight. If Firman had built a machine that worked more like a parachute, Firnas built one that worked much like a modern hang glider. Onlookers reportedly commented that he flew like a bird. The court poet, who was present, described the situation, writing that Firnas “flew faster than the phoenix in his flight when he dressed his body in the feathers of a vulture,” as transcribed by Lynn White Jr. in his Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays.
All was not well, however. When Firnas began his final descent to earth, he encounterd a design flaw. During all of those years of study and design, he solved the mechanics of take off and flying; what he had neglected, however, were the mechanics necessary to thwart gravity and achieve a slow and controlled landing. Descending earthward at a high rate of speed, the middle-aged Firnas crash-landed and suffered serious injuries, particularly to his back.
In engineering his craft, Firnas had overlooked an important element: his device lacked a tail. He did not realize that when birds came to ground or landed on a limb of a tree, they used their tails to slow their speed. Bird tails function as a stability mechanism that enables them to make slow and controlled landings, even onto a moving tree branch.
Because of his injuries, Firnas did not have the opportunity to re-engineer his flight suit to incorporate a tail in its design. Still, he made a mark for himself: he remains known in the annals of history as the first person to make a controlled air flight.
Firnas's glider flight is considered by writer John Harding to be the first attempt at heavier-than-air flight in aviation history, and he discussed this event in his book Flying's Strangest Moments: Extraordinary but True Stories from Over 1,100 Years of Aviation History. In upcoming centuries, others attempted similar flights, some who may have been influenced by the Muslim polymath. In the 17th century, a legendary Ottoman Turk named Ahmed Celebi (1609–1640) made non-powered glides across the Bosporus, a narrow strait in northwestern Turkey. In 1853, Sir George Cayley (1773–1857) built the first modern glider based on basic aerodynamic theory and tested it in Yorkshire, England. Although Cayley has been called the “Father of the Airplane” and the “Father of Aviation,” his efforts came about 1,000 years after Firnas's first and only flight.
As an engineer, Firnas was fascinated by mechanical devices and timepieces. He was interested also in crystals, quartz, sand, and glass. He combined these interests into the designing of a water clock (called Al-Maqata) and developing a method to manufacture glass from sand. Experimenting with lenses and their magnifying qualities, he turned glass manufactured by sand into silica and quartz glass. With this method he created Andalusian drinking glasses. While clear and colorless glass had been made since the days of the Roman Empire, Firnas devised a mixture that made glass more translucent than anything then existing. He also used his glass-making method to create “reading stones,” a curved lens that could aid those with poor eyesight.
In addition, he developed a method of cutting (or faceting) rock crystal. At the time, Egyptians were the only ones who know how to cut rock crystal. Thanks to Firnas's innovation, Spain no longer needed to ship its rock crystals to Egypt to be refined.
Firnas died in 887 in Qutuba al-Andalus (now Córdoba), Spain, almost 12 years after his flight attempt. He was 77 years old. Today, thousands of years after his death, while American children learn about the Wright Brothers, Middle Eastern children learn about Firnas and his attempted first flight.
Eventually recognized in the Western world, Firnas's accomplishments in astronomy were recognized by the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, which in 1976 named a moon crater Ibn Firnas in his honor. Among Muslims, he has long been esteemed, however. In 2011, Baghdad, Iraq's Saddam Hussein Airport was renamed the Ibn Firnas Airport, and a statue in his memory now stands on the way to this international airport. In his home country, the Abbas Ibn Firnas bridge stands in his honor, spanning the Guadalquivir River.
Harding, John, Flying's Strangest Moments: Extraordinary but True Stories from over 1,100 Years of Aviation History, Robinson Press, 2006.
Reffner, Ervin, The Esoteric Codex: The Alchemists, [Germany], 2015.
White, Jr., Lynn, Medieval Religion and Technology: Selected Essays, University of California Press, 1978.❑