Abbas Ibn Firnas
In the ninth century AD, all but a northern strip of present-day Spain and Portugal formed the Andalusian Caliphate of Cordova. This was the high tide of Islamic Art and Science. Cordova and Baghdad were twin cultural centers of the world.
In 822, a new Caliph named 'Abd al-Rahman II took the throne, and he began to gather together talented individuals. He began with an Iraqi musician called Ziryab. That meant Blackbird—a nickname that honored his fine singing, and dramatic appearance. His real name was Abu al-Hasan 'Ali ibn Nafi'. A jealous music teacher had driven Ziryab out of Baghdad. So the Caliph hired him at a fine salary.
In Cordova, Ziryab developed new musical forms. He introduced the lute to Spain, and expanded its range by adding a fifth string. But he also became a patron of the sciences. He fostered the development of astronomy, medicine, and many technologies. One person who joined this exciting world, so bubbling with ideas, was a young Berber astronomer and poet named 'Abbas Ibn Firnas.
In 852, under a new Caliph, a daredevil named Armen Firman decided to fly off a tower in Cordova. He glided back to earth, using a huge winglike cloak to break his fall. He survived with minor injuries, and the young Ibn Firnas was there to see it.
Like Ziryab, Ibn Firnas worked at a huge variety of enterprises. He was studied in chemistry, physics, and astronomy. He set up astronomical tables, wrote poetry, and designed a water clock called Al-Maqata. He also devised a means of manufacturing glass from sand, and he developed a chain of rings that could be used to display the motions of the planets and stars. He also developed a process for cutting rock crystal. Up to then, only the Egyptians knew how to facet crystal. Thereafter Spain no longer needed to export quartz to Egypt, but could finish it at home.
In 875, Ibn Firnas built his own glider, and then launched himself from a tower. The flight was largely successful, and was widely observed by a crowd that he had invited. However, the landing was bad. He injured his back, and left critics saying he hadn't taken proper account of the way birds pull up into a stall, and land on their tails. He'd provided neither a tail, nor means for such a maneuver. His death, just twelve years later, may have been hastened by the injury.
- "Ibn Firnas was the first man in history to make a scientific attempt at flying."
—Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs.
As westerners teach their children about the Wright Brothers, the Islamic countries tell theirs about Ibn Firnas, a thousand years before the Wrights. The Libyans produced a postage stamp honoring him. The Iraqis built a statue in his memory on the way to Baghdad International Airport, and the Ibn Firnas Airport to the north of Baghdad is named for him.
- J. Vernet, 'Abbas Ibn Firnas. Dictionary of Scientific Biography (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Vol. I, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970–1980. pg. 5.
- Ziryab on muslim heritage
- Flight of the blackbird