Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1910:
'ABBAS IBN FIRNAS

by John H. Lienhard

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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 created them.

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 at home.

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 work.

(Theme music)


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.

For more on Ziryab, see:
Muslim heritage
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.


Ibn Firnas' flight
A widely circulated artist's impression of Ibn Firnas' flight. Source unknown.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.