Abbas Ibn Firnas: Maker of the First Flying Machine
By Ruqyah Sweidan, Arab America Contributing Writer
You may have heard about DaVinci’s experiments with flight engineering. You most definitely know about the Wright brothers inventing the first motorized flying plane. But, did you know that centuries earlier, a Muslim scholar built wings of silk, wood, and feathers?
Abbas Ibn Firnas was born in Al-Andalusia (today’s Spain) in 810. He is descended from the Berber tribe, who conquered Spain under the leadership of Tariq Bin Ziyad. Spain was a flourishing institution of science and technology. Abbas lived in the Emirate of Cordoba, one of the major learning hubs during the Umayyad Caliphate. He was educated in Science, Astrology, and Medicine. Since childhood, Abbas has had an interest in dismantling and reassembling machinery to learn about its design and working. He also learned music and Arabic poetry.
For historical accuracy, the first experiment in which an object flew in the air was carried out by two Chinese philosophers, Mozi and Lu Ban. These men are also the likely makers of the first kite. This invention was handy in observing gathering information from rival kingdoms in China.
Nevertheless, Ibn Firnas remains the first aviator to fly with a heavier-than-air machine. Abbas became interested in flying when he learned about the nature observer, Armen Firman, trying to fly on a parachute but failed. Ibn Firnas became fascinated with this idea of humans reaching the sky. Hence, he got to work further exploring and expanding the field of flight. Twenty-three years later, Abbas designed his first flying machine.
In the early 850s, Firnas climbed to the top of the tallest mosque minaret in Qurtuba. He jumped off the minaret wearing the wings. At first, he was plummeting to the ground. Then, the flying machine inflated just in time and slowed his descent. Later, in the 870s, Ibn Firnas jumped off a cliff from Yemen’s Jabal Al-Arus. He glided in the air, staying in flight for at least ten minutes. Unfortunately, he ended up crash landing because he had neglected the mechanics of landing. This, understandably, left him injured and disappointed.
Advancement in Flying
Over the next twelve years of his life, Ibn Firnas studied bird behavior to learn that slow landing was achieved via collaborative work between tail and wings. Therefore, Firnas is the man responsible for the theory that went on to create the ornithopter, an aircraft that mimics birds and flies by flapping its wings. His flying machine diagrams went on to form the basis of aviation engineering.
Moreover, Ibn Firnas’s interest in science and technology also led him to invent water-powered clocks. He experimented with sand and quartz crystals to understand the nature of these properties. According to various historical accounts, Firnas is credited for making transparent glass with these materials. He is furthermore the likely inventor of the famous Andalusian glasses, which are still in demand and use today. The visually challenged benefit from him, as well, as he is credited with making lenses that helped with reading.
It was Firnas who first built wings made of wooden planks wrapped in silk and bird feathers. Centuries later, Firnas inspiration led an Ottoman Turk Ahmed Celebi to successfully fly and land across the Bosphorus in 1630. Today, there are several airports, bridges, hills, parks, avenues, and scientific bodies named after the late and great Firnas, especially in Muslim majority countries. A statue of him exists near Baghdad Airport, and a bridge over the Guadalquivir river in Cordoba, Spain, is also named after him. Firnas is one of the numerous examples of great Muslim intellectuals from the Golden Age of Islam.
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