When we learn of the history of flight we often think of the Wright Brothers and their first ever airplane. Even looking back in history we rarely look back further than Leonardo Da Vinci, who many believe to be the first man to conceive of flight. Few have ever heard of Eilmer of Malmesbury who attempted to fly a glider in the 11th century. Eilmer, however was not the first man to attempt controlled flight. The designs which Eilmer attempted to replicate came from 9th century Spain, from a Muslim whose name is still well known in the Muslim world but has been almost forgotten in the West.
Abbas Abu Al-Qasim Ibn Firnas Ibn Wirdas Al-Takurini (commonly known as Abbas Ibn Firnas) was born in Ronda, southern Spain, in 810. A Berber polymath, Ibn Firnas is credited with designing a water clock called Al-Maqata and for devising a means to manufacture glass from sand to make silica and quartz glass. Although clear and colourless glass had existed since the Romans, Ibn Firnas’ new mix could create glass so clear that one contemporary poet (living in Syria and Baghdad) Al-Buhturi claimed that it was as if the contents were standing on its own without the presence of a glass. Apparently Ibn Firnas went on to use this glass to create fine lenses to magnify and correct eyesight. He also developed a way of cutting rock crystal (something only the Egyptians knew) which meant Spain no longer needed to send their rock crystals to Egypt to be refined. On top of these achievements stories tell of Ibn Firnas was a “sky simulation room” (in his basement) which contained a machine showing how the planets moved. People, on entering the room were also astonished to see the stars, clouds, thunder and lightning produced by hidden mechanisms in the room. Ibn Firnas’ talents also extended to music and he eventually became the first teacher at the famous Cordoban music school of Ziryab (see previous blog “The Forgotten Blackbird“).
However, it was in the field of aviation that Ibn Firnas was to make history as the first man to make a controlled flight in human history. The Chinese had earlier developed ground-controlled flight where monks would be flown up on kites, controlled from the ground. It is thought that these kite designs were brought along the Silk Road to the Muslim Empire and acted as the source of Ibn Firnas’ inspiration.
In 852 Ibn Firnas demonstrated an early parachute by jumping from the muezzin of the Grand Mosque in Cordoba. The parachute is described by John H. Lienhard (Engineers of our Ingenuity radio programme, USA, 2004) as being a huge wing-like cloak. Whilst this parachute was not enough to break his fall completely it apparently managed to slow him down sufficiently that he only sustained minor injuries. For the next 23 years Ibn Firnas devoted himself to studying birds and refining his machine. His design appears to be that of a hang-glider which had two sets of wings to adjust altitude and direction. In 875 at the age of 65 Ibn Firnas attempted to fly using this machine. In front of a large crowd he had invited Ibn Firnas proclaimed”Presently, I shall take leave of you. By guiding these wings up and down, I should ascend like the birds. If all goes well, after soaring for a time I should be able to return safely to your side”. With this said, Ibn Firnas launched himself from a mountain and managed to do a full circuit coming back to where he had taken off. Described as “flying faster than a phoenix” by the court poet who witnessed his display. However, he had provided no mechanism for landing which resulted in him crash-landing and injuring his back. He discovered later that he had failed to provide a stability mechanism similar to a bird’s tail which would have allowed him to slow down his landing. However, his injuries and his age prevented him refining his designs a third time. Abbas Ibn Firnas died twelve years later at the age of 77.
His accomplishments would not even be outdone by Leonardo Da Vinci’s designs (which only work thanks to our modern understanding of physics, they were never tested by Da Vinci). It is unknown if Eilmer of Malmesbury’s designs were able to replicate Ibn Firnas’ success.
Although obscure to us in the West, Ibn Firnas is considered a hero by the Muslim world. Baghdad’s northern airport is named Ibn Firnas airport in honour of the first man to fly. Recently a bridge was constructed in Cordoba called the Abbas Ibn Firnas bridge, a final recognition from his home country.