Abbas ibn Firnas (810–887 A.D.), also known as Abbas Abu al-Qasim ibn Firnas ibn Wirdas al-Takurini (Arabic: عباس بن فرناس), was an Andalusian polymath: an inventor, physician, chemist, engineer, Andalusian musician, and Arabic-language poet. Often said to be of Berber descent, he was born in Izn-Rand Onda, Al-Andalus (today’s Ronda, Spain), lived in the Caliphate of Córdoba, and is reputed to have attempted flight.
Abbas Ibn Firnas designed a water clock called al-Maqata, devised a means of manufacturing colorless glass, invented various glass planispheres, made corrective lenses (“reading stones“), devised 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.
Among other very curious experiments which he made, one is his trying to fly. He covered himself with feathers for the purpose, attached a couple of wings to his body, and, getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air, when according to the testimony of several trustworthy writers who witnessed the performance, he flew a considerable distance, as if he had been a bird, but, in alighting again on the place whence he had started, his back was very much hurt, for not knowing that birds when they alight come down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one.
Al-Maqqari is said to have used in his history works “many early sources no longer extant”, but in the case of Firnas, he does not cite his sources for the details of the reputed flight, though he does claim that one verse in a 9th-century Arab poem is actually an allusion to Firnas’s flight. The poem was written by Mu’min ibn Said, a court poet of Córdobaunder 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.
It has been suggested that Ibn Firnas’s attempt at glider flight might have inspired the attempt by Eilmer of Malmesbury between 1000 and 1010 in England, but there is no evidence supporting this hypothesis.
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 Córdoba, 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. Armen Firman is not mentioned in al-Maqqari’s account.
As 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 synthesis, the tower jump later confused with Ibn Firnas’ gliding attempt in secondary writings.