‘Abbas Ibn Firnas is not well known in the west but he’s a hero to little boys and aviation buffs throughout the Arab-speaking world.

The Andalusian scientist was court poet and astronomer to Abd al-Rahman III in the days when Cordoba was the wealthiest and most civilized city in Europe.  Like many Muslim scientists of the ninth and tenth centuries, he was a polymath.  He produced a revised version of al-Khwarizmi’s astronomical tables that was later important in the development of European astronomy.  He built an observatory, invented a metronome, and learned how to cut crystal.  None of that makes him stand out among the polymaths of the Islamic golden age. (Leonardo da Vinci would have fit right in.)

Ibn Firnas’s fame depends on one moment in his productive and accomplished career.  In 875 CE, at the age of sixty-five, Ibn Firnas tried to fly.  Using a hang-glider made of feathers and wood that he built after hours of observing birds in flight, he leapt off the roof of the Rusafa palace in Cordoba.  By all accounts, he flew for several minutes, gliding on the air currents like a raptor.  He as able to adjust his altitude and change direction, but he hadn’t made any provision for landing.  Badly injured in the inevitable crash, the scientist knew what he’d done wrong.  He hadn’t paid enough attention to how birds use their tail feathers.

It would be the late nineteenth century before humans mastered the art of gliding like a hawk on wind thermals.  It turned out Ibn Firnas was right.  The tail was the key.

German aviation pioneer Otto Lillenthal in flight in 1895.

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