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Abbas ibn Firnas

You’ve probably heard of the Wright brothers - they conducted the first “heavier than air, powered controlled flight”, and are often coined as the first men to fly. But - as with all experiments - the ‘first’ sits on the shoulders of those who inspired the journey. Leonardo da Vinci is an apt example - his sketches of elaborate flying machines likely inspired those who came after him, resulting in the Wright brothers' trip to the clouds. 

But who came before Leo? About 600 years before da Vinci put pen to paper, an inventor named Abbas ibn Firnas was strapping wings to his back in Spain. As such, Ibn Firnas is considered the first person to conduct flying experiments.

A manuscript from the 11th century recounts his experimental flights. While there are no drawings, the manuscript describes Ibn Firnas’ invention as having two wings “capable of a controlled, sustained glide”, according to translations by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In fact, a team of professors at UNC set out to recreate the experiment and build Ibn Firnas’ wings. Led by Glaire Anderson (professor of art history), Jan Chambers (professor of dramatic art), Laura Miller (professor of biology and mathematics) and Julia Kimbell (adjunct in biomedical engineering), the team studied historical accounts of Ibn Firnas’ flight, as well as Islamic artifacts from the time to gain insight into available materials.

The manuscript says the wings were made of feathers and silk, but didn’t 'flap' - this gave the team a solid starting point. They also took into account his reputation as an artist, concluding that anything he built would probably have an aesthetic appeal. The resulting model is quite beautiful. (see below)

So why don’t we read about Abbas ibn Firnas in Western culture? Great question, especially as his work is celebrated in other parts of the world. Perhaps this is a crucial reminder to look outside of our own history books once in a while...

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Photo by Steve Exum


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