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Abbas ibn Firnas

posted on: May 20, 2021

When in doubt, hold your altitude; nobody ever collided with the sky.

By: Ahmed Abu Sultan/Arab America Contributing Writer

Throughout the history of mankind, there have been memorable people whose contribution to science is considered exceptional. We know the names of many of them, and in the context of aeronautics, the following illustrious names immediately come to mind. However, there are other names that have passed quietly into oblivion, despite the fact that their contribution has been truly remarkable. Such is the case of the scientist, historian, poet, inventor and, of course, aviation pioneer, Abbas Ibn Firnas. Many are surprised to learn that this man was the first to fly with an air-gliding machine, staying in flight for about ten minutes. He did this more than a thousand years before the Wright brothers, specifically in the year 875. Abbas ibn Firnas was the first person to ever operate a flying machine, or more like falling with style. His machine was not capable of lifting him in the air, but it did prevent him from directly falling into the ground.

Abbas Ibn Firnas

Born in the 9th century in Izn-Rand-Onda Al Andalus, which is present-day Ronda, Spain, he spent most of his adult life in the Emirate of Cordoba, one of the major learning hubs during the Umayyad Caliphate. Relatively little is known about his childhood, except that he acquired an extensive education and came to the fore in various disciplines, which led him inexorably to the city of Cordoba, which at that time was the richest and most influential in Al-Andalus. There he stood out as a scientist, inventor, poet, philosopher, alchemist, musician, and astrologer, to such an extent that he became known as Hakim Al-Andalus. Once in Cordoba, he went on to develop those facets of his knowledge that significantly contributed to the advancement of the sciences and the arts in the courts of the emirs Abderraman II and Muhammad I.

Some historical accounts suggest al Firnas was influenced by Armen Firman, who was neither a scientist nor a polymath but an astute observer of nature. It was Firman who first built wings made of wooden planks wrapped in silk and bird feathers. In the early 850s, Firman climbed to the top of the tallest mosque minaret in Qurtuba and jumped off wearing the wings. Although his attempt quickly failed and he plummeted to earth, the flying machine inflated just in time and slowed his descent. He was lucky enough not to break any bones in the fall; the delay of his landing proved somewhat life-saving. Ibn Firnas watched Firman’s adventure as he stood among the gathered, fascinated crowds who were all watching the skies above in amazement. Impressed with Firman’s result, Ibn Firnas began to realize that the act of flying in the air needed further investigation.

It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.

In Science

In the scientific field, he was the first in the Iberian Peninsula, and probably in Europe, to use the Sindhind astronomical tables, of Indian origin, which later would prove fundamental to the development of European science and would be studied in medieval universities as a Quadrivium subject. He introduced the Western world to the technique for carving rock crystals and even developed alchemical procedures to create crystals from different minerals. Also, he built an anaphoric clock, a complex mechanism that uses water as a liquid engine. The water flow is closed or opened by a series of valves and the clock serves to show the hour at any time of the day or night, something which was unusual at the time. He also developed the first armillary sphere in Europe, used to perform calculations and approximate astronomical observations, by moving the instrument’s rings according to the plane of the celestial rings.

As an example of his advanced knowledge of astronomy, he built a mechanically articulated planetarium at his residence in Cordoba which represented the celestial vault. He even provided it with sound and visual effects that simulated various weather phenomena: storms, lightning, and thunder. In the context of aerospace, Abbas Ibn Firnas is an extraordinary reference point as the creator of the precursor to the parachute and for being the first person to successfully design, build and test artifacts that remained in flight. He researched the mechanism behind airplanes 600 years before Leonardo da Vinci developed his designs for flying machines, and more than a thousand years before the Wright brothers made their famous flight.

There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.

Hezarfen Ahmed and the Wright Brothers

Hezarfen Ahmed Çelebi, who made experiments at home and researches various subjects, created a primitive form of today’s aircraft by copying another Turkish scientist, İsmail Cevheri. Before his historical flight, he made experiments in Istanbul to Okmeydanı to measure the durability level of the wings which he prepared by examining the birds’ flight. Later one morning, just in front of the eyes of Istanbul society gathered at the shores, he let himself go into the air, crossed the Bosporus by moving his wings, and landed on Üsküdar. In 1632, Hezarfen Ahmed Çelebi crossed the Bosporus with bird-like wings attached to his body on the southwest by jumping to the air from Galata Tower and landed on Doğancılar in Üsküdar, 3358 meters away. Hezarfen Çelebi was one of the most important people in Turkish aviation history.

The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were two American aviation pioneers generally credited with inventing, building, and flying the world’s the first successful motor-operated airplane. They made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer on December 17, 1903, 6 km south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1905, the brothers developed their flying machine to make longer-running and more aerodynamic flights. The Wright brothers were also the first to invent aircraft controls that made the fixed-wing powered flight possible.

Nonetheless, Abbas ibn Firnas, a thousand years before the Wright brothers, designed a glider made of wool and silk, and he launched himself with it from the La Arruzafa hills, near Cordoba. He was so sure that his invention would work that he had convened hundreds of people to watch along the route. Also present were many members of the court of Muhammad I, Emir of the Andalusi caliphate. The result was a sustained flight using air currents, which lasted anything between two and ten minutes. Despite a difficult landing, he not only survived but also became the first man to fly with a heavier-than-air machine.


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Arab America contributor, Ahmed Abu Sultan, researches the origin behind aviation technology. Since the age of enlightenment, many names have been immortalized due to their contribution to human advancement. However, few remember the scientist who practically established the foundation of aviation techniques. As a result, his work allowed many polymaths’ to explore bending the laws of nature.