Mankind has always been fascinated by the mirage of flight, but when was the first time we tried to soar into the sky? One of the fathers of aviation is Abbas Abu Al-Qassim Ibn Firnas Ibn Wirdas Al-Takurini but he is usually referred to as Abbás Ibn Firnás. He was born in what is known today as Ronda, Spain in 810AD. However, he lived in Cordoba, which was the center of learning in the Muslim world at the time. Ibn Firnas was an Andalusian polymath: an inventor, astronomer, physician, chemist, engineer, musician and Arabic-language poet.
He designed amongst other things a water clock, a colorless glass and corrective lenses. He was very interested in mechanical devices and especially crystals, which led him to melt sand into glass and create Andalusian drinking glasses.
Abbas Ibn Firnas was born into a Muslim family, of Arab-Berber origin, during the Umayyad Caliphate of the Iberian Peninsula. He is known as a great philosopher, who studied some of the most important fields of that era: chemistry, physics, astronomy. As for his poetic talent and skills in astrology, they brought him the fame he needed to reach the court of Abd al-Rahman II (822-852), where he perfected his knowledge of poetry and was initiated into the art of music. Due to his many inventions, he continues to go to the court of Muhammad I (852-886) and during these times, he wrote numerous praises, praising their greatness and military victories. Also, as for his scientific work, he designed an hourglass, a water clock, known as Al-Maqata, after the model produced by Heron of Alexandria. He is the first inventor in the Muslim world to develop the technique of cutting rock crystals. Until then, these activities took place in Egypt, and through his contribution, Ibn Firnas made this happen in Spain as well. He created an armillary sphere to visualize the movement of the stars and a planetarium, which he built in the laboratory of his house. Other inventions attributed to Ibn Firnas are: the correct vision lenses, a metronome, discover the means to have transparent glass. All these innovations influenced scientific discoveries in Europe in the coming period.
It is said that Ibn Firnas was influenced by a stuntman named Armen Firman who had developed a means of simulating flight through observing nature and coupling that with a basic understanding of flight mechanics. Firman was said to have built a silk suit of sorts that was reinforced with wooden rods, which he used to climb to the top of the minarets of the grand mosque in Cordoba, and jumped. Even though he didn’t fly, his invention inflated enough to slow down his fall. This meant that he only sustained minor injuries as opposed to being crippled or worse, dead. According to some reports, Ibn Firnas was in the crowd observing this and it prompted him to investigate the world of aeronautics so much so, he was able to construct his own flying machine 23 years after he first observed Firman and his flying contraption. Ibn Firnas took flight in a pair of wings made out of real feathers and fashioned out wood and silk. He then went on to Jabal al-Arus and jumped off the cliff. Observers stated that he glided for what felt like ten minutes before starting to descend.
In the year 852, Ibn Firnas decides to fly for the first time, from a tower in Cordoba, helped by an enormous canvas, to cushion his fall. After the launch, he suffered minor injuries, but for this attempt, he was considered the creator of the first to be. A second flight attempt takes place in 880, at the age of 70, when he built two movable wooden wings, covered with silk and feathers. It also started from the top of a tower, but this time, the flight was a success, managing to float in the air for a few minutes, during which time it was watched by a lot of people invited to attend this special occasion. On his descent, he realized that he had a major flaw in his design. He had focused too much on the ability and mechanics of taking off and had forgotten to study descent in flight. This meant that he descended and landed at a very high speed, which caused him to fracture two ribs.
Ibn Firnas died seven years after this experience, in the year 887. Many researchers after him made improvements to this “aircraft” in order to achieve the desired expectations. In the Muslim mind, Ibn Firnas remained the first man to attempt to realize the myth of Icarus. In his memory, the Libyans created a postage stamp with his face, the Iraqis built a statue of him on the road to Baghdad International Airport and named another airport in northern Baghdad after him. Also, a crater on the moon is named after him. Therefore, Ibn Firnas is considered the forerunner of aeronautics.
Flying had been the dream of human beings for several centuries before it was finally accomplished. History is full of myths and fables featuring humans with wings doing extraordinary things in the sky. In Greek Mythology, Icarus is believed to have flown so close to the sun despite his father’s advice, that his waxed feathers melted, leading to his crash landing and subsequent drowning in the sea. Ibn Firnas was ahead of his time and even with his rudimentary knowledge about flying from just observing the birds, we can consider him as a precursor of the modern-day aerospace engineer.