Meet 9th century polymath Abbas ibn Firnas, the first human flying machine

5 min read
16 December, 2022

People familiar with aviation history know that the first efforts to reach the clouds started in China following the invention of kites in the 5th century. Many also know that Leonardo da Vinci was the first to make the first real flight studies in the last quarter of the 15th century. 

Almost all human beings somehow should have heard the names of Tito Livio Burattini, Francesco Terzi, the Montgolfier brothers, Alberto Santos-Dumont and, of course, the Wright Brothers when it comes to aviation history.

But, have you ever wondered who is considered to be the first human to fly? Have you ever heard that it was the 9th-century Muslim polymath, inventor, physician and engineer? 

"He [Abbas ibn Firnas] was around 65-70 years old when, according to historians, he jumped off a cliff from Yemen’s Jabal Al-Arus mountain with the help of a pair of wings that was built of silk, wood and real feathers, which allowed him to glide in the air and stay in flight for more than 10 minutes"

Yes, it was Abu al-Qasim Abbas ibn Firnas ibn Wirdas al-Takurin, commonly known as Abbas ibn Firnas, who was an Andalusian and of Berber descent, and whose name – which is derived from ‘Afernas’ – is currently widespread in today’s Morocco and Algeria. 

Besides, many people might still not be aware, but, his name would be seen on airports and bridges. For example, his statue is located near Baghdad Airport, while a bridge over the Guadalquivir river in Cordoba, Spain, is also named after him.

However, there is even more. There is a crater on the moon also named after him. So, how did he achieve it?

Here is his mesmerising story, which was not only limited to flying but much more.

Abbas Ibn Firnas
A statue of Abbas Ibn Firnas has been erected outside Baghdad Airport

Abbas ibn Firnas was born in the 9th century, in 810 Izn-Rand-Onda Al Andalus, present-day Ronda, Spain. Even though there is no detailed information about his childhood, it is known that he was a true prodnose who used to dissect things, like toys and assemble them over and over again.

He spent his juvenileness in Cordoba, the city located inside of the greater Cordoba Emirate that accounts for today’s Gibraltar, Morocco, Portugal and Spain and was one of the major learning hubs and spots of the Islamic world at that time along with Baghdad.

Thus, Abbas ibn Firnas had the privilege of receiving a comprehensive education in various disciplines ranging from medicine and astrology, but engineering literally enamoured him. Besides that, he was addicted to classical music and interested in poetry.

With this intellectual and futuristic combination of education, he started shining as a true polymath, intellectual, engineer, and poet, which pushed the people to start calling him ‘Hakim of Al Andalus’.

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So, here are his achievements that made him deserve such an assertive title. 

The first human to fly

He was around 65-70 years old when, according to historians, he jumped off a cliff from Yemen’s Jabal Al-Arus mountain with the help of a pair of wings made from silk, wood and real feathers, allowing him to glide in the air and stay in flight for more than 10 minutes. 

This first attempt left Abbas ibn Firnas injured and disappointed. Although he achieved the act of flying, he failed to consider the logic behind the landing. He lost his balance during the flight in the air, causing him to crash land and incur serious injuries.

Despite the injured parts of his body, his mind was still charmed with finding the reason behind his failure. It took some 12 years for him to realise that slow landing could be achieved through the integrated work between tail and wings.

If you are a true polymath, you take lessons from your failures and never admit defeat.

This is what happened to him. His conclusion about the tail’s necessity to act like a rudder to control flight led him to leave several new impeccable designs, paving the way for a theory that created the ornithopter, an aircraft that mimics birds and flies by flapping its wings.

Even though he had never been able to fly again, his flying machine diagrams led to the invention of the cornerstones of aviation engineering in the late 20th century.

In the field of astronomy, he designed a mechanised planetarium in which there were revolving planets moving in relation to each other. Abbas ibn Firnas also worked on sand and quartz crystals to discover their nature. 

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Several historians have acknowledged his share in the development of these materials by converting them into transparent glass which led him to lay the foundation of Andalusian glasses that are still in use today.

His magnification of the glass properties also led him to invent and design lenses for accurate eyesight. Abbas ibn Firnas was the first customer of his product since the lenses helped him with reading – yes, the ones we use today.

He did not contend with all the inventions and also designed a water clock called ‘Al Muqata’ with the aim of keeping track of time. In addition, ibn Firnas wrote several books on engineering, astronomy, mathematics and physics. 

He passed away around the 890s after leaving such a legacy, with many historians saying that his death may have been speeded up by the injuries he experienced during his flight. 

However, his life story undeniably tells otherwise; didactic failures bring imperishable notabilities beyond death and time.

Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, journalist, and PhD Candidate in International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University. His research focuses on Libya, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict.

Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat