The 9th century polymath and engineer dared to make heavier-than-air machine flight a thousand years before motorised aeroplanes were invented.
The Wright brothers may have invented the first motorised aircraft, but the 9th century engineer Abbas Ibn Firnas is considered to be the first human to fly with the help of a pair of wings built by silk, wood and real feathers.
According to historians, when Ibn Firnas was between the age of 65 and 70, he jumped off a cliff from Yemen’s Jabal Al-Arus mountain and glided in the air, staying in flight for at least ’10 minutes’. The short flight left him both injured and disappointed. He realised that because he had neglected the mechanics of landing, he couldn’t balance his flight in the air and ended up crash landing.
Ibn Firnas lived for another 12 years. He realised that slow landing is achieved via the collaborative work between tail and wings, a conclusion he reached after decades of studies of bird flight and their landings. It is Firnas who could successfully claim to be behind the theory that went on to create the ornithopter, an aircraft that mimics birds and flies by flapping its wings. His flying machine diagrams went on to become the cornerstones of aviation engineering in the late 20th century.
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.
When it comes to the practicality of flying, the first experiment where an object ‘flew’ in the air, was in fact carried out by two Chinese philosophers, Mozi and Lu Ban, who are also said to be the inventors behind the kite. As a result of their pioneering ways in the 5th Century, they were able to gather military intelligence from rival kingdoms.
That said, Ibn Firnas is still considered to be at the forefront of his field given that he was the first aviator to fly with a heavier-than-air machine.
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.
Some historical accounts suggest al Firnas was influenced by Armen Firman, who was neither a scientist nor 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 realise that the act of flying in the air needed further investigation.
He studied flight patterns of different birds and objects for twenty-three years. He then constructed his flying machine and jumped off Jabal al Arus in Yemen despite his advanced years.
Several centuries later, an Ottoman Turk Ahmed Celebi successfully flew and landed across the Bosphorus in 1630.
Ibn Firnas’ keen interest in science and technology led him to invent water-powered clocks. He also experimented with sand and quartz crystals in order to understand the nature of these properties. Many historians credit him for making transparent glass these materials. He allegedly was also the pioneer behind the famous Andalusian glasses, which are still in demand and use today. The visually-challenged benefited from him, too, as he is credited with making lenses which helped with reading.
Ibn Firnas is of Berber descent. His name’s root is Afernas, which is now a common and widespread name heard in both Morocco and Algeria today. Several airports, bridges, hills, parks, avenues and scientific bodies have been named after him, especially in Muslim majority countries. A statue of him exists near Baghdad Airport and the bridge over the Guadalquivir river in Cordoba, Spain, is also named after him.
He died sometime between 890 and 895 AD and many historians say his death may have been hastened by his injury.