Humans have been flying for over a hundred years, thanks to the invention of the first airplane by the Wright Brothers in 1903. However, one engineer managed to achieve heavier-than-air flight a thousand years earlier.
Born Abu al-Qāsim Abbās ibn Firnās in 810 in what is now Malaga, he was given an extensive education as a child. In adulthood, he came to the city of Cordoba and worked as a scientist, inventor, poet, alchemist, and astrologer. He became so well known that he was given the title of Hakim Al-Andalus (the Wiseman of Al-Andalus).
He may have been the first person in Europe to make use of the Sindhind Astronomical Tables of India, which would later go on to influence European science and be studied in universities.
He also developed alchemical processes for creating crystals from different minerals. He devised and built the first armillary sphere in Europe, designed to perform calculations to help astronomical observations. He would go on to design a fully-working planetarium in his own house, complete with sound and visual effects.
In 852, he leapt from the tower of Cordoba’s Mosque, testing his version of what we would know as a parachute. Made of canvas, it slowed his fall enough to prevent him from dying, but according to some accounts he did break some bones.
This didn’t deter him however, as the experiment proved it was in fact possible to slow the rate of falling. This meant he could refine his design, and theoretically remain airborne with a greater degree of control.
In 875 he designed what we would now recognise as a glider. Built out of wood and silk, it has a wingspan of four or five metres. Silk was the strongest and lightest fabric at the time, making up the fastenings, as well as covering the wings, which were also covered with eagle feathers.
He was suspended underneath via a harness system, and he could control the wing movements with handles.
He took off from a hill, and while historical accounts differ on how long he was airborne, it would seem he did stay aloft for approximately two minutes. Unfortunately, there was no way for him to control his speed, so upon landing the glider was damaged and Ibn Firnas himself was injured. He had based the design of the glider on the bodies of birds, but later realised he hadn’t included a tail – vital for control and landing.
An old man at that point, he never attempted flight again, although he inspired numerous others throughout history. The crater Ibn Firnas on the moon is named after him, as well as a bridge in Cordoba, where he spent most of his life.
This man pioneered techniques in aviation which wouldn’t be fully realised for hundreds of years, taking risks that others would never had dared to attempt.