Arab Science - A Journey of Innovation Qatar Foundation

Flight and engineering

Ibn Firnas's gliding machine foreground, Leonardo Da Vinci's at rear

The Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258 not only obliterated the birthplace of the Arab Golden Age, but also vaulted Cairo into the role of the leading Arab intellectual and political centre

Arabs learned rocketry from the Mongols

Hassan al Rammah's 13th Century torpedo

Timeless pre-Islamic irrigation methods, like the Egyptian shadoof seen above, were eventually replaced by Arab pumps, irrigation canals and other innovations

Just as futuristic was the work of an Andalusian musician, glassworker, thinker and inventor, Abbas Ibn Firnas. Although documentary proof of his work is not as extensive as many Arab-Muslim thinkers, multiple accounts have survived in credible second and third hand histories, enough to give him the title of father of modern glider aviation.

Working in the Umayyad court in Cordoba in 852, he is said to have observed a gambler-daredevil named Armen Firman take bets and parachute off the top of the minaret of the Great Mosque in Cordoba. This rudimentary parachute flight, which Firman survived, inspired Ibn Firnas to redirect his work away from music and glassware to the mechanics of flight.

He studied birds, falling seeds, leaves, feathers, and bats and devoted more than 20 years to building what seems to have been the first modern glider, with wings sewn of silk, wood, and actual feathers. When in his 60s, he took a number of friends and observers to the Sierra Morena, a ridge outside Cordoba. Accounts say that he jumped off the hillside into the wind and remained airborne for 10 minutes, sailing over the fertile irrigated plain outside Cordoba. Only upon landing did he remember that he had omitted a critical part of his design, something not unlike a bird's tail that allows it to control its descent. This important realisation came too late, because Ibn Firnas hit the ground fast and hard, breaking bones and leaving him in pain for the rest of his life, which lasted another 12 years. So he did survive to talk about his discovery, even if the outcome was less than perfect.

Illustrations of his flying device are not unlike the design for a glider that Leonardo Da Vinci drew nearly 700 years later. Ironically, Da Vinci is given credit for being the first modern thinker to seriously address the means of flight. Whether Da Vinci saw drawings or read about the flight of Abbas Ibn Firnas will never be known. But even if not, it demonstrated that two great minds would independently solve in a similar way one of the greatest engineering puzzles of history... how to transfer the skills of flying birds and insects to mankind.

The birth of rocketry and gunpowder seems to have come in China in the 9th century or before, largely for fireworks for use during religious festivals. But this seemingly innocuous discovery took on a new life when the Mongols began to employ rockets as weapons of war. Not only could gunpowder-fuelled rockets project a military force miles beyond its front lines, they introduced a new degree of fear and uncertainty to the already traumatic process of battle. When they were equipped with an explosive charge, and they were accurate, rockets could do physical damage to the enemy.

Mongol rockets in the 13th century rained down on Hungary in Europe as well as Russia, Persia, Iraq, and Syria as the Mongol Golden Horde swept across Eurasia. While their actual military impact is debatable, this dramatic new weapon certainly caught the attention of inventors, including those in the Arab-Muslim world.

The fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 was one of the most traumatic events in Arab-Muslim history, bringing an end to the Baghdad caliphate, as well as utterly destroying this fabled city that for 500 years had been one of the shining centres of Arab-Muslim power, thought, and culture. As many as 800,000 Baghdadis are believed to have been slaughtered outright, and the city's physical face was obliterated. The destruction was so total that many Arabs and other Muslims began to think that this terrible event was an act of God, a divine punishment sent to avenge the supposed sins and mistakes of the Arabs.

But amidst all this destruction, there were tiny seeds of the future. Arab writers who survived to write about the destruction were fascinated by the Mongols and how they waged war. They even managed to build their own rockets, which the Arab armies used in the 7th Crusade against King Louis IX in 1268.

One Arab inventor, Hasan Al Rammah, working in Syria about a decade after the Mongol destruction of Baghdad, wrote a treatise on gunpowder and rockets called The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices. This book included more than 100 recipes for gunpowder, including 22 that could be used as rocket fuel. Experts say that one of Al Rammah's recipes is uncannily close to the modern ideal mix for gunpowder. Al Rammah also designed an early torpedo, probably the first ever done.

Al Rammah's work almost certainly made its way to Europe, where it would help equip the future armies of imperial conquest. For better or worse, modern jet propulsion, rocketry, artillery, and other weaponry in part owe their development to the work of this little-known Arab engineer.

More peaceful innovations of Arab-Muslim engineers included modern clear glass like that developed by aviator Abbas Ibn Firnas and chemist Jabir; the kerosene lamp invented by Al Razi in the 9th century; the modern oil well which was introduced in the 11th century around Baku, Azerbaijan; streetlights in mediaeval Cordoba; asphalt paved roads in mediaeval Baghdad; various tools of water supply (including the irrigation canals called acequias brought to Al Andalus by the Umayyads and then to the Americas by the Catholic kings of Spain); assorted methods of steel-making in Damascus and Toledo; and windmills. Inventor Al Jazari invented the crankshaft and camshaft in 13th century Anatolia and these essential discoveries would one day help power the Industrial Revolution in Europe and elsewhere. Al Jazari is also credited with inventing the modern pump.

The Banu Musa brothers working in the 8th and 9th century Baghdad of caliphs Harun Al Rashid and Al Mamun are credited with discovering the on-off switch, the float chamber, the modern valve, and the gas mask. They are also documented as having developed the earliest modern robotic devices in the 9th century, including robotic birds in the caliph's gardens that could sing and flap their wings.

Arab-Muslim analogue computers included the famous astrolabe, and the equatorium invented by an Andalusian Al Zarqali in the 11th century, designed to compute the longitudes and positions of the sun, moon, and planets. The first sextant, created in 994 by Al Khujandi in Persia, was a more advanced way of geolocation that would in the 17th century supplant the astrolabe and become the key element of navigation until the development of GPS in the late 20th century.

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