Abbas Ibn Firnas

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Abbas Ibn Firnas Information

Abbas Ibn Firnas

Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887 A.D.), also known as Abbas Qasim Ibn Firnas and عباس بن فرناس (Arabic language), was a Muslim Andalusian polymath: an inventor, engineer, aviator, physician, Arabic poet, and Andalusian musician. He was born in Izn-Rand Onda, Al-Andalus (today's Ronda, Spain), and lived in the Emirate of Cxrdoba. He is known for an early attempt at aviation.


Ibn Firnas designed a water clock called Al-Maqata, devised a means of manufacturing colorless glass, he invented various glass planispheres, made corrective lenses ("reading stones"), developed a chain of rings that could be used to simulate the motions of the planets and stars, and developed a process for cutting rock crystal that allowed Spain to cease exporting quartz to Egypt to be cut.

In his house he built a room in which spectators witnessed stars, clouds, thunder, and lightning, which were produced by mechanisms located in his basement laboratory. He also devised "some sort of metronome."


He is also said to have made an attempt at flight using a set of wings. In the words of the Moroccan historian Ahmed Mohammed al-Maqqari (d. 1632):

This account is described seven centuries later by al-Maqqari, who used in his history works "many early sources no longer extant." In case of Firnas, the only one cited by him was a 9th century poem written by Mu'min ibn Said, a court poet of Cxrdoba under Muhammad I (d. 886), who was acquainted with and usually critical of Ibn Firnas. The pertinent verse runs: "He flew faster than the phoenix in his flight when he dressed his body in the feathers of a vulture." No other surviving sources refer to the event.

Ibn Firnas' glider flight is considered by John Harding to be the first attempt at heavier-than-air flight in aviation history. It has been suggested that it might have inspired the attempt by Eilmer of Malmesbury between 1000 and 1010 in England but there is no evidence supporting this hypothesis. He has been commemorated on stamps from Libya, by a statue near the Baghdad International Airport, and by a namesake airport north of Baghdad. The crater Ibn Firnas on the Moon is named in his honor.

Armen Firman

Armen Firman may be the Latinized name of Abbas Ibn Firnas, or, alternatively, he may have been the man who inspired Ibn Firnas.

There is some contradiction in the modern record: According to some secondary sources, about 20 years before Ibn Firnas attempted to fly he may have witnessed Firman as he wrapped himself in a loose cloak stiffened with wooden struts and jumped from a tower in Cxrdoba, Spain, intending to use the garment as wings on which he could glide. The alleged attempt at flight was unsuccessful, but the garment slowed his fall enough that he only sustained minor injuries.

However, there is no reference to Armen Firman in other secondary sources, all of which deal exhaustively with Ibn Firnas' flight attempt. Since this story was recorded only in a single primary source, al-Maqqari, and since Firman's jump is said to have been Ibn Firnas' source of inspiration, the lack of any mention of Firman in al-Maqqari's account may point to the conclusion that he never existed and that his tower jump was later confused with Ibn Firnas' gliding attempt in secondary writings.

Physics in medieval Islam

"Ibn Firnas was a polymath: a physician, a rather bad poet, the first to make glass from stones (quartz), a student of music, and inventor of some sort of metronome."

The Moroccan historian al-Maqqari, who died in 1632 A.D. but who used many early sources no longer extant, tells of a certain Abu'l Qasim 'Abbas b. Firnas who lived in Cordoba in the later ninth century. […] No modern historian can be satisfied with a source written 750 years after the event, and it is astonishing that, if indeed several eye-witnesses recorded Firnas's flight, no mention of it independent of al-Maqqari has survived. Yet al-Maqqari cites a contemporary poem by Mu'min b. Said, a minor court poet of Cordoba under Muhammad I (d. 886 A.D.), which appears to refer to this flight and which has the greater evidential value because Mu'min did not like b. Firnas: he criticized one of his metaphors and disapproved his artificial thunder. […] Although the evidence is slender, we must conclude that b. Firnas was the first man to fly successfully, and that he has priority over Eilmer for this honor. But it is not necessary to assume that Eilmer needed foreign stimulus to build his wings. Anglo-Saxon England in his time provided an atmosphere conducive to originality, perhaps particularly in technology.


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.
Lynn Townsend White, Jr. (Spring, 1961). "Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator: A Case Study of Technological Innovation, Its Context and Tradition", Technology and Culture 2 (2), p. 97-111 [100f.]
Salim T.S. Al-Hassani (ed.), Elisabeth Woodcock (au.), and Rabah Saoud (au.). 2006. 1001 Inventions. Muslim Heritage in Our World. Manchester: Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation. See pages 308-313. (ISBN 978-0-9555035-0-4)

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