Abbas ibn Firnas

ARenaissance figure at the height of the Islamic golden age in Moorish Spain, ibn Firnas is most remembered for his revolutionary design of a glider, the first manually manipulated flying machine, and for executing the first recorded controlled flight.

Born: 810; Izn-Rand Onda, al-Andalus (now Ronda, Andalucia, Spain) Died: 887; Córdoba, Spain Also known as: 4Abbas Qasim ibn Firnas (full name);

Armen Firman Primary fields:Aeronautics and aerospace technology; astronomy; mathematics Primary invention:Glider

Early Life

That anything is known of 4Abbas ibn Firnas (AH-bahs IHB-n FUR-nahz) is remarkable. Much in the archival records and libraries of the Islamic empire that evolved in the Iberian Peninsula across nearly seven centuries was systematically destroyed in the fifteenth century as part of the fierce religious wars that marked the closing century of the Muslim presence in Europe. Ibn Firnas was born in 810 in Izn-Rand Onda in al-Andalus, just over a century after nomadic Muslim invaders, specifically the Umayyad (modern-day Sunni Muslims), had begun to occupy what is contemporary Spain and Portugal after a fierce seven-year war. In the decades before ibn Firnas was born, tensions between East and West had largely severed the Muslim empire into two de facto independent cultural centers—one based far to the east around Baghdad, the other around the courts of Córdoba. With its military occupation under control by mid-century, the caliphate of Córdoba, under Abd al-Rahman II (who assumed the throne in 852), began an ambitious agenda that envisioned establishing the court as the leading cultural and scientific center of the civilized world, rivaling Baghdad, by attracting with huge sums of money the best Muslim minds and undertaking an ambitious program of public building and funding scientific and artistic endeavors.

It was to that court that ibn Firnas journeyed in his late thirties, most likely in his capacity as an accomplished musician and noted poet. It is conjecture, of course, but given the wide-ranging projects that ibn Firnas undertook upon arriving at the court and the scope of his scientific endeavors (he was proficient in chemistry, physics, astronomy, mathematics, and geology), his early education in the sciences must have been considerable or he was undoubtedly the most accomplished autodidact before Leonardo da Vinci.

Life’s Work

Public records of ibn Firnas’s achievements after establishing his presence at the court in Córdoba are far more reliable. In addition to his study of flight, ibn Firnas distinguished himself in the realms of astronomy and geology. In an era when clocks were used not to measure the hour so much as to measure astronomical movements and particularly the Sun’s position, ibn Firnas designed a kind of grand water clock that drew on a steady stream of running water to create an accurate system of measuring the Sun’s movement by relying on a waterwheel and chain drive.

Given the enormous geological riches of the Iberian Peninsula, specifically its crystal quartz reserves, the potential economic boom was frustrated because the Córdoba court had to rely on exporting the crystals, principally to Egypt, known at the time for its techniques of cutting crystals. Ibn Firnas devised a revolutionary system for cutting crystal that virtually eliminated the inconvenience and the expenses of exporting the rock. In addition, he experimented with ways to convert the abundant sand and stone of the region into crude optical glass.

Distracted by the often elaborate theorizing about the workings of the planets and the movement of the stars, ibn Firnas devised a precursor to the modern planetarium, an elaborate hanging system of interlocked rings that displayed (with the help of a hand-turned crank) planetary motions with remarkably accurate scale (this nearly seven centuries before Nicolaus Copernicus). That device gave theoretical astronomers the opportunity to test early hypotheses about the relationship between orbit and planet size and the effects of stars on heavy planet motion. Later, ibn Firnas devised a similar surrounding experimental environment that re-created with apparently mesmerizing effect the meteorological phenomena of clouds, thunder, and lightning (through cleverly concealed devices) and gave audiences breathtaking images of stars.

It was flight, however, that drew ibn Firnas in his later years. Ibn Firnas witnessed an attempt at flight in 852, when a court daredevil, using a gaudy winglike overcoat that worked less as a flying device than as a parachute, leaped amid a carnival-like atmosphere off a minaret tower in Córdoba. Ibn Firnas studied flight for nearly two decades before attempting his own flight in 875. Unlike that earlier flight, ibn Firnas envisioned controlling the flight and sustaining it beyond a slightly delayed fall. To that end, he designed a rudimentary one-person glider. Records of invited eyewitnesses indicate that ibn Firnas covered himself with a feather-suit and attached to himself a pair of winglike devices, wooden frames that mimicked the bone structure of wings and that were themselves strung with feathers. He launched himself from a considerable height, from the Mount of the Bride, a steep natural promontory outside Córdoba. Fortunately for ibn Firnas, or perhaps through his own calculations, his launch position was favorable to an extended flight: From the promontory, the hill sloped into a rather deep valley, thus providing sufficient updraft to keep the glider in air, which it did for nearly ten minutes. However, after navigating the device and actually returning to the point of his departure—thus accomplishing the first controlled flight—ibn Firnas had difficulty in the landing and essentially crashed, seriously injuring his back (he was in his mid-sixties at the time). Although he continued other scientific endeavors for nearly a decade after his storied flight, he never tried flight again. He died in 887 at the age of seventy-seven.

Impact

Ibn Firnas is remembered as a Renaissance figure (more than five hundred years before the European Renaissance) for his contributions to several disciplines in the natural sciences. A scientist, ibn Firnas defined the pragmatic solution-driven side of the scientific enterprise, always seeing innovations and the application of insight as a way to address specific problems. Thus, he is a precursor to the industrial and technological revolutions that were at his time still several centuries off.

Although his work in geology and astronomy was groundbreaking (particularly his pioneering work in crystal cutting and artificial crystal manufacturing), he comes to contemporary audiences largely by virtue of his daring visionary certainty that controlled flight was scientifically feasible. As an aviation pioneer, ibn Firnas left a legacy that elevated the status of the individual scientist to that of a heroic figure flying—in this case, literally—in the face of conventional wisdom: Ibn Firnas executed his own designed flight against the popular assumption that flight was left for the gods, an experimental flight executed not as a stunt but rather as a laboratory test of a theory in the face of the threat of bodily harm, even death.

To a much larger degree, however, ibn Firnas has become a foundational figure in the assertion of the primacy and achievement of Islamic culture, how Islamic ingenuity and scientific acumen for seven hundred years in Moorish Spain predated Western advances in some cases by centuries, although the complete record of that achievement was deliberately destroyed. Thus, ibn Firnas, given the range of his work, the audacity of his experimentation, and the breadth of his vision, has been embraced by contemporary Islamic culture with the same enthusiasm and admiration that the Orville and Wilbur Wright or Leonardo da Vinci are held in Western culture. Indeed, he is one of the seminal figures used to demonstrate to contemporary audiences the importance of the caliphate era in Moorish Spain, as ibn Firnas’s rise to prominence coincided with what has come to be regarded as continental Europe’s greatest sustained era of culture—intellectual, artistic, scientific, and philosophical—after the collapse of Rome.

—Joseph Dewey

Further Reading

Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Engaging history of ibn Firnas’s era, much neglected in standard readings of Western civilization, presents vivid anecdotal histories that draw from original sources. Includes an account of ibn Firnas’s flight.

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