By Neenah Payne
Americans take flying across the country and around the world for granted now. However, even as late at the 1960s, only the Jet Set flew on a regular basis. BOAC inaugurated the world’s first commercial scheduled jet service on May 2, 1952 using the de Havilland Comet. The first successful service was the typical “jet set” route of London-New York City in 1958. Pan Am followed suit with the Boeing 707, making its first scheduled flight between New York City and Paris on October 26, 1958.
The Wright brothers first flights with a powered, sustained, and controlled airplane were in 1903. Two years later, they built and flew the first fully practical airplane. So, you might think they were the first to fly. Or perhaps you think Leonard Da Vinci (1457-1519) was the first person who attempted flight.
Leonardo da Vinci and Flight claims,
Leonardo never abandoned his preoccupation with flapping wing designs, and did not develop the insights he recorded in the Codex on the Flight of Birds in any practical way. Nonetheless, centuries before any real progress toward a practical flying machine was achieved, the seeds of the ideas that would lead to humans spreading their wings germinated in the mind of da Vinci. In aeronautics, as with so many of the subjects he studied, he strode where no one had before. Leonardo lived a fifteenth century life, but a vision of the modern world spread before his mind’s eye.
However, that history of flight is wrong by 700 years! Meet 9th century polymath Abbas ibn Firnas, the first human flying machine says:
Thought you knew the history of flying? Think again. Rather than 15th century Italy, the history of human flying dates back to 9th century Cordoba with the inventions of polymath Abbas ibn Firnas. This is his remarkable, horizon-stretching story.
People familiar with aviation history know that the first efforts to reach the clouds started in China following the invention of kites in the 5th century. Many also know that Leonardo da Vinci was the first to make the first real flight studies in the last quarter of the 15th century.
Almost all human beings somehow should have heard the names of Tito Livio Burattini, Francesco Terzi, the Montgolfier brothers, Alberto Santos-Dumont and, of course, the Wright Brothers when it comes to aviation history. But, have you ever wondered who is considered to be the first human to fly? Have you ever heard that it was the 9th-century Muslim polymath, inventor, physician, and engineer?
“He [Abbas ibn Firnas] was around 65-70 years old when, according to historians, he jumped off a cliff from Yemen’s Jabal Al-Arus mountain with the help of a pair of wings that was built of silk, wood, and real feathers, which allowed him to glide in the air and stay in flight for more than 10 minutes”
Yes, it was Abu al-Qasim Abbas ibn Firnas ibn Wirdas al-Takurin, commonly known as Abbas ibn Firnas, who was an Andalusian and of Berber descent, and whose name – which is derived from ‘Afernas’ – is currently widespread in today’s Morocco and Algeria. Besides, many people might still not be aware, but, his name would be seen on airports and bridges. For example, his statue is located near Baghdad Airport, while a bridge over the Guadalquivir river in Cordoba, Spain, is also named after him. However, there is even more. There is a crater on the moon also named after him. So, how did he achieve it?
Here is his mesmerising story, which was not only limited to flying but much more.
Abbas ibn Firnas was born in the 9th century, in 810 Izn-Rand-Onda Al Andalus, present-day Ronda, Spain. Even though there is no detailed information about his childhood, it is known that he was a true prodnose who used to dissect things like toys and assemble them over and over again.
He spent his juvenileness in Cordoba, the city located inside of the greater Cordoba Emirate that accounts for today’s Gibraltar, Morocco, Portugal, and Spain and was one of the major learning hubs and spots of the Islamic world at that time along with Baghdad.
Thus, Abbas ibn Firnas had the privilege of receiving a comprehensive education in various disciplines ranging from medicine and astrology, but engineering literally enamoured him. Besides that, he was addicted to classical music and interested in poetry. With this intellectual and futuristic combination of education, he started shining as a true polymath, intellectual, engineer, and poet, which pushed the people to start calling him ‘Hakim of Al Andalus’.
So, here are his achievements that made him deserve such an assertive title.
The first human to fly
He was around 65-70 years old when, according to historians, he jumped off a cliff from Yemen’s Jabal Al-Arus mountain with the help of a pair of wings made from silk, wood and real feathers, allowing him to glide in the air and stay in flight for more than 10 minutes.
This first attempt left Abbas ibn Firnas injured and disappointed. Although he achieved the act of flying, he failed to consider the logic behind the landing. He lost his balance during the flight in the air, causing him to crash land and incur serious injuries. Despite the injured parts of his body, his mind was still charmed with finding the reason behind his failure. It took some 12 years for him to realise that slow landing could be achieved through the integrated work between tail and wings.
If you are a true polymath, you take lessons from your failures and never admit defeat. This is what happened to him. His conclusion about the tail’s necessity to act like a rudder to control flight led him to leave several new impeccable designs, paving the way for a theory that created the ornithopter, an aircraft that mimics birds and flies by flapping its wings. Even though he had never been able to fly again, his flying machine diagrams led to the invention of the cornerstones of aviation engineering in the late 20th century.
In the field of astronomy, he designed a mechanised planetarium in which there were revolving planets moving in relation to each other. Abbas ibn Firnas also worked on sand and quartz crystals to discover their nature. Several historians have acknowledged his share in the development of these materials by converting them into transparent glass which led him to lay the foundation of Andalusian glasses that are still in use today.
His magnification of the glass properties also led him to invent and design lenses for accurate eyesight. Abbas ibn Firnas was the first customer of his product since the lenses helped him with reading – yes, the ones we use today.
He did not contend with all the inventions and also designed a water clock called ‘Al Muqata’ with the aim of keeping track of time. In addition, ibn Firnas wrote several books on engineering, astronomy, mathematics, and physics.
He passed away around the 890s after leaving such a legacy, with many historians saying that his death may have been speeded up by the injuries he experienced during his flight. However, his life story undeniably tells otherwise; didactic failures bring imperishable notabilities beyond death and time.
This captivating documentary explores the groundbreaking achievements of Abbas Ibn Firnas, a visionary from the Islamic Golden Age. It focuses on his pioneering experiments in human flight where he became the first person to attempt controlled flight in the 9th century. Through interviews, historical reenactments, and stunning visuals, the film sheds light on his technical brilliance and lasting impact on aviation and engineering, inspiring viewers with his indomitable spirit of exploration and innovation.
Abbas Ibn Firnas is a well-known inventor who became the first person ever to make a human glider and succeed in his experiment. He contributed a lot to the world of astronomy and engineering. His inventions include reading stones and water clocks.
Ismail al-Jazari: The Muslim inventor who may have inspired Leonardo da Vinci shows the influence of Muslim pioneers on Leonardo da Vinci.
The impact of Muslim scientists on Leonardo in general can be seen both implicitly and explicitly throughout his notebooks. His studies into geometric proportions were evidently informed by Thabit ibn Qurra, his work on optics by Ibn Al Haytham (Alhazen), and on mathematics by Al Kindi. More evidently, Leonardo references Ibn Sina (Avicenna) on multiple occasions in his anatomical investigations.
Leonardo sought out the patronage of Muslim rulers, such as Ottoman Sultan (Bajazid II). He petitioned him with the proposition of several ingenious designs, one of them being a fantastic bridge which would connect Europe and Asia, known today as the Galata Bridge in Turkey.
His appreciation of Muslim scientific innovation, together with his perpetual fascination with mechanical design meant that he must have been familiar with the work of the great canon of Muslim inventors and engineers. The methods of early Islamic inventors such as Abbas Ibn Firnas (who, incidentally, is said to have first attempted human flight, predating Leonardo by half a millennia), the 9th century Banu Musa brothers, and the 11th century Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi were all known to have been celebrated and acknowledged among scholars across Renaissance Europe.
See Flyers Before Leonardo Da Vinci.
Abbas Ibn Firnas was a very creative engineer and inventor who constructed the first successful flying machine. His flying machine was a controlled one and he also demonstrated its flight, many centuries before designs of Leonardo Da Vinci. He is also famous for developing a glass lens that could be used to correct some vision problems. He had done many inventions and is so famous that, a crater on the moon has been named after his name.
Abbas Ibn Firnas was born in Al-Andalusia (now it is Ronda, Spain) in 810 and was a Muslim. His family belongs to the Berber tribe who are famous for conquering Spain in the leadership of Tariq Bin Ziyad. Spain of that time was under the control of Muslims and was a glorious nation due to the institution of science and technology.
Abbas got his education in the field of science, astrology, and medicines. Abbas was interested since his childhood in hacking the machinery and putting it back together to learn about its design and working. He was also interested in music and Arabic poetry and also learned them too. Abbas became interested in flying machine when he found that an engineer, Armen Firman, tried to fly on parachute but failed. It took 23 years before Abbas designed his first flying machine that could fly.
After designing and demonstrating his first flight, Abbas spent the rest of life in developing the design of the flying machine and principles of avionics. He also wrote many books on astronomy, avionics, physics, and engineering. His work also inspired a great engineer and philosopher, known as Leonardo Da Vinci.
Inventions of Abbas Ibn Firnas
Abbas Ibn Firnas developed and invented many things in his life due to his interest in science and technology.
Some of his famous inventions are:
Abbas made his first flying machine in the year 875 that was constructed on a frame of bamboo. He covered the bamboo frame with lightweight silk cloth and feather of eagles. The wings of the flying machine were not static, but could be controlled during flight. When his machine was ready, Abbas gathered a large audience to demonstrate them the flight. When the audience gathered, he jumped from a large cliff and achieved a flight for 10 minutes. There was a flaw in his design; he didn’t design any way of landing successfully. As a result, an accident happened to him during landing which caused serious injuries. Later on, he mentioned in his book about a tail for the flying machine for landing successfully.
- Transparent Glass – He experimented sand and quartz crystals to understand their properties. He also made very transparent glasses from them that became very famous as Andalusian glasses. He also made lenses from the transparent glass was become in correcting eyesight problems of many people.
- Water Powered Clock – He designed a clock, known as Al-Maqata, for keeping the accurate time that was totally powered by the flow of water.
- Abbas Ibn Firnas learned music and Arabic poetry from a famous Iraqi musician of that time, Ziryab.
- After the first flight, Abbas proposed many designs of the flying machine but never flown them.
- Due to interest in astrology, Abbas designed a mechanical planetarium to study the motion of planets.
A period stretching over 700 years witnessed the Islamic world making scientific progress; a period unprecedented in the last three millennium. At the beginning of that era, Baghdad was the centre of Scientific World, Qutuba Al-Andalus (Cordoba, Spain) became one of the learning centres of the Muslim world, and Europe was languishing in its dark ages. During the European dark ages, the international language of science was Arabic.
Many rulers and caliphs who supported scholarship and science were also the most cultured, passionate, and enthusiastic human beings. They not only advanced the openness towards other religions and cultures, but provided a vibrant sense of optimism and freedom of expression. Cordoba’s greatest years of glory were from 756 to 1031 when it was the capital of al-Andalus. The progressive growth provided increasing importance for Cordoba and made it the largest and greatest city in Europe by the 10th century, dazzling with its social and multicultural activities, with Muslims, Jews, and Christians mingling at all levels.
The people were awed by the splendour and magnificence of the caliph’s court and the city of Cordoba, a city that had narrow, coo,l and paved streets, known for their cleanliness; public lighting; luxurious villas; indoor plumbing for real water closets along the banks of the Guadalquivir river; patios, gardens, fountains and public baths.
The activity of buying and selling was organised, like the market places in Moroccan towns, by areas or streets. Those selling perfumes and spices were allowed to trade outside the mosques, but sellers of aromatic goods were moved off to outer areas. The skilled artisans and agricultural infrastructure converted Cordoba into a booming economy. It became famous for its leather and metal work, glazed tiles and textiles.
A variety of agricultural goods introduced by Muslims to Europe were astonishingly delicious. They were oranges, lemons, limes, watermelons, figs, pomegranates, almonds, bananas, artichokes, eggplants, spinach, sugar-cane on the side of herbs and spices such as cumin, caraway, coriander, fennel, mint, parsley, cloves, and nutmeg. In addition to this, there were cash crops such as cotton, flax, and silk.
In Cordoba, pursuit of knowledge and the power of words were taken seriously providing an atmosphere conducive to demonstrating your power to express your thoughts, convert them into actions and show accomplishments. The books on medicine, mathematics, astronomy, botany that were available in Cordoba by constant contact with Baghdad were far in advance of anything that the rest of Europe had to offer. In this great city, Cordoba, people not only benefited from the knowledge available there, but also gave things to the world which it had not seen.
Abbas Ibn Firnas was one such person who made contributions to human society. He is well known for his attempts at human flight in the ninth century, a great idea and an event in human experience. Abbas ibn Firnas was a symbol of creativity and ingenuity. His ideas and creations allowed his generation and also the later generations to prosper and develop civilization, bringing countries and people closer to each other, and impacting human lives in the past and present.
Abbas ibn Firnas was a genius who designed a water clock called al-Maqata. He conceived and developed a process for manufacturing transparent and colourless glass and invented various kinds of glass planispheres, which can be described as a map of half or more of the sky globe with a window showing only the part of the sky that is visible at any one point in time. He made corrective lenses, calling them reading stones; invented a machine resembling the astrolabe and had the ability to monitor the sun, moon, stars, and planets, and their circuits and orbits.
This machine known as the “chain of rings” simulated the movement and ascending and descending nodes of these astronomical bodies. He also developed a process for cutting rock crystal that allowed Spain to stop exporting quartz to Egypt to be cut. He dedicated a room in his house for simulating stars, clouds, thunder, and lightning and located the mechanisms in the basement of his house. He also contrived a metronome instrument for measuring time with sound to determine the times of Islamic prayers, sunrise, and sunset.
Abbas Ibn Firnas was born in Ronda, southern Spain, in 810 and lived in Cordoba. His greatest achievement is in the field of aviation. He was not only the first man to conceive of flight, but the first man to attempt controlled flight – a first in the field of aviation. He devoted himself to studying birds and ended up designing a machine of silk and feathers which looked like a huge wing-like cloak parachute. His design was a hang-glider that 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 and launched himself from a mountain and managed to do a full circuit and stayed aloft for ten minutes in the skies near Cordova, Spain. However, because of the lack of mechanism for landing, the flight resulted in him crash-landing and injuring his back.
Abbas Ibn Firnas, the name that was almost forgotten in the West, was finally recognised, and now is being remembered as the name of a man who gave us wings, made history in the field of aviation. In 1976, in recognition of the accomplishments of Abbas ibn Firnas, the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (IAU/WGPSN) named a moon crater Ibn Firnas in his honour. He 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.
Abbas ibn Firnas was a polymath: an inventor, engineer, aviator, physician, Arabic poet, and Andalusian musician. The past glory will never return to Cordoba but the world would continue to witness the soaring wings of Abbas ibn Firnas in the skies of this planet.
For More Information
Father of Robotics: Al-Jazari
Al-Razi: A Father of Western Medicine
How Coffee Created The Modern World
How Arabs Revolutionized Western Culture
Discoverer of Blood Circulation: Ibn al-Nafis
World’s First True Scientist: Ibn al-Haytham
How Islamic Architecture Transformed Europe
Europe’s Dark Ages Were Islam’s Golden Ages!
How The Concept of Zero Changed The World!
How Muslims Transformed Western Civilization
How Muslims Inspired The European Renaissance
When Moors Rescued Europe From The Dark Ages
How The Islamic Golden Age Revolutionized The West
Father of Sociology, Historiography, Economics: Ibn Khaldun
Ibn Rushd/Averroes: Grandfather of European Enlightenment
Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post
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