Today, an airplane in Andalusia. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
In the Summer of 2003,
American troops found themselves fighting at the
Ibn Firnas airport, just north of Baghdad. I don't
suppose many westerners gave particular thought to
that name, or why it was attached to an airport. So
let's meet 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 took the throne and set about
to create a renaissance. His ingathering of talent
began with an Iraqi musician called Ziryab. That
meant Blackbird -- a nickname that honored
his fine singing, and dramatic appearance.
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. And
here things get interesting.
In 852, a new Caliph and a bizarre experiment: 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 set up astronomical tables, he
wrote poetry, he built a planetar-ium and designed
a water clock. He developed a process for cutting
rock crystal. Up to then, only the Egyptians knew
how to facet crys-tal. Now Spain would no longer
need to export quartz to Egypt, but could finish it
Yet Firman's flight must've lain upon his mind.
For, in 875, Ibn Firnas built his own glider. It
was far more than a fancy cloak. He too launched
himself from a tower. The flight was largely
successful. 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've been
hastened by the injury. And, as we tell
our schoolchildren about the Wright
Brothers, the Islamic countries tell
theirs about Ibn Firnas, a thousand years
before the Wrights. The Libyans have a postage
stamp honoring him. The Iraqis have their airport.
And I sit in awe of the nerve, the belief in self,
behind such a stunt. I sit in awe of the magnitude
of the driving urge to fly that was with us -- long
before even the legend of Daedalus and Icarus.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. Vernet, 'Abbas Ibn Firnas. Dictionary of
Scientific Biography (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Vol.
I, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980. pg.
For more on Ziryab, see:
Flight of the Blackbird
Flyers before Leonardo
The Caliph who hired Ziryab was 'Abd al-Rahman II.
He was followed by Muhammad I. Ziryab's real name
was Abu al-Hasan 'Ali ibn Nafi'.
On July 8, 2009, I received an email from a Wikipedia editor/contributor who
raised the question as to whether Ibn Firnas and Armen Firman were two
different people. The historical record is very thin and it contains no
primary source material mentioning Firman. The contributor points to the possibility
that Firnas' name along with the date and details of his flight, may have
been confused in secondary writings.
A widely circulated artist's impression of Ibn
Firnas' flight. Source unknown.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.