Ibn Firnas – History’s First Successful Aviator
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
It was probably about 25 years ago when my grandchildren were hovering around me as we took a walk to the playground near my house. Now as everyone knows, the minds of young tots are a flurry with questions that need answers and who other than ‘Jiddy’ (grandfather) could answer all. As we sauntered along the path to the playground, I pointed out different types of trees and flowers, the yonder bulldozer digging the foundation of a new neighborhood home and the little squirrels that appeared to be gathering their winter supply of nuts. However, the four children seemed more fascinated with the birds that would fly off as they approached them.
That day I remember well. From amongst their chattering and laughter, a question arose, an innocent and probably a universal one oft asked by young inquisitive minds, ‘Jiddy’ why can’t we fly?
Yes, I knew I could provide them with a scientific approach to the differences between humans and Aves, of human vertebrates and endothermic ones, but I chose another.
Home-made sandwiches in hand, I sat them down around me and told them of an Arab genius and inventor, who, centuries in the past, had, indeed, soared into the skies just like the birds around them. His name was Ibn Firnās.
In awe, my grandchildren all asked at once, “Did he do it?, Jiddy, did he really fly”. My answer, ‘Yes, he did. Mu’min ibn Sacīd, poet of the Royal Court of the once great city of Arab Cordoba, so impressed with this aviation pioneer’s efforts in flying praised him with this verse:
“He overpowered the Phoenix in its flight of culture when he dressed his body in feathers of the vulture.”
Abū al-Qāsim cAbbās Ibn Firnās ibn Wirdās al-Tākurinī was a busy man. Born in 810 in Rhonda in Andalusia (Arab Spain), he eventually travelled to and lived in Cordoba, the most intellectual and influential city in al-Andalus at that time where his education and learning in the disciplines of science and in music and Arabic poetry would lead him to become known as ḥakīm al-Andalus or rather the Wiseman of Al-Andalus. He was a polymath accomplished in astrology, astronomy, medicine, technology and engineering, aviation and navigation, chemistry and alchemy, philosophy and glass-making all which inspired him to conceive and invent, equipment, mechanisms and processes that would eventually become contributions to the sciences and technology.
Ibn Firnās was the first person in al-Andalus to develop a process of manufacturing colorless and transparent glass from stone. He created ‘reading stones’ where glass could be shaped and polished and used as corrective or magnifying lenses. Ever the inventor, he also devised various glass planispheres.
Another brainchild was ‘the chain of rings’, the first astronomical armillary sphere or spherical astrolabe in Europe that could demonstrate and monitor the motion of the orbits and circuits of the sun, moon, stars, and planets. This was used to calculate approximate astronomical observations by moving the rings according to the plane of celestial rings. Along with this, he introduced a version of al-Khwarizmi’s astronomical tables, the Zij al-Sindhind, that would be fundamental to the development of European science and part of university studies in the medieval period.
At his home, with his mechanical mind, he devised a type of planetarium to simulate and observe the stars and the clouds and even weather occurrences such as lightning, storms, and thunder all with sounds and visual effects.
To him, as well, is given credit for inventing a type of metronome instrument for measuring time in music for a proper tempo. There was also the water-clock that gained his fame, the Maqata capable of indicating the times of prayer. A complex mechanism, it used water as a liquid engine and in which the flow of water was opened or closed by a series of valves, designating the hour at any time of the day or night.
Manufacturing was even changed in the Iberian Peninsula thanks to this genius. Where at one time the Iberian Peninsula was exporting rock crystal to Egypt to be cut, Ibn Firnās developed, instead, a process for cutting the quartz in its original home. His alchemical knowledge led him to develop procedures to create crystals from various minerals.
As I looked into the eyes of my grandchildren it was obvious that they were absorbed in the words I was saying. Maybe it was too much too soon. I only hoped that they understood the importance of this master of invention and ingenuity. I explained that even though what I was saying may be beyond their scope of understanding at this moment, perhaps, years later they would come to understand that Ibn Firnās’s ideas and innovations, his creativity and genius would be part of the prosperity of later generations that would ultimately develop human civilization.
“Jiddy, that’s great”, they piped in, “but what about him flying like a bird?”
“Well let me tell you. Although there are stories and legends of the ancient Greeks and Chinese trying to fly, Ibn Firnās’s flight was the first successful attempt. It is said he tried to fly twice – the first time in 852 jumping from the minaret of the Grand Mosque in Cordoba when he wore a loose cloak made rigid with wooden struts. The cloak slowed his fall, creating what is thought to be the first parachute. He fell and despite being somewhat hurt, he did not give up. He had hoped to glide like a bird but was only partially successful – the jump leaving him with some minor injuries.
Years later and after some mechanic refinements, in 875, from near the Rusafa Palace in Cordoba, from an elevated area of land, Ibn Firnās, before a large crowd of onlookers, clad himself in a type of cloak made of silk covered with feathers with two wings attached that were used to adjust his direction and altitude, and jumped into the wind, soaring and circling in the air for probably about 10 minutes for some distance, like a bird in the sky. All was well until he came to land. He hit the ground hard and was injured quite badly in this first successful flight of man. He hurt his back and ended up with some broken bones that caused him the pain he suffered until he died in 887.”
The children were quiet and not wanting to put a damper on their day, I continued.
“You realize that when something doesn’t go exactly right, you turn around and re-evaluate the situation. For Ibn Firnās, it was one simple thing. After years of studying birds, their habits and how they fly, he forgot the near obvious – the stability mechanism – that a bird needs its tail to land, so as to slow down its descent for a smooth landing. Understand he was about 65 years old when he, finally after years of devoting himself to this mission, tried to get it right and had refused to give up. He was the first man ever to invent a type of hang-glider, never relinquishing his dream to fly. More than one thousand years before the Wright Brothers, Ibn Firnās created the prototype of a flying machine.
All these inventions of various devices and his pioneering experiments contributed to the advancement of the sciences and the arts is not only Arab/Muslim Spain but in the rest of Europe. So important were his contributions to the world that a moon crater has been named after him. A bridge constructed in Cordoba is named cAbbās Ibn Firnās and Baghdad has the Ibn Firnas Airport honoring the first man in independent flight.”
My grandchildren were silent. “Well, kids that is your lesson for today. I think I’ve answered your question with the most information I can give you. What do you think? Imagine, Arab history produced the inventor of the flying machine, the first man to successfully fly!”
The four children jumped up and ran to the playground. I followed them as fast as I could but began to run after them after they yelled out that they were going to the top of the slide and be just like Ibn Firnas!
Sometimes teaching too much backfires.