The exhibition, though, wildly overdoes it. First, it creates a straw man, reviving the notion, now defunct, of the [European] Dark Ages. Then it overstates the neglect of Muslim science, which has, to the contrary, long been cited in Western scholarship. It also expands the Golden Age of Islam to a millennium, though the bright years were once associated with just portions of the Abbasid Caliphate, which itself lasted for about 500 years, from the eighth century to 1258. The show’s inflated ambitions make it difficult to separate error from exaggeration, and implication from fact.
I bring this up today for what I hope is the last time because Aaron Adair has written an excellent blog post comparing the material given in the exhibit and its companion book to the actual facts known from history to demonstrate that many of the astronomical achievements ascribed to Arabs by the exhibit were actually known to the Greeks and Romans a thousand years earlier, though in many cases later refined by the Arabs, drawing on these Greek and Roman works. I very strongly encourage everyone to check this out. Rothstein’s review also critiques the exhibit based on its flawed facts, though more briefly.
I framed my discussion around the case of Ibn Firnas, a ninth-century Andalucian Berber who is alleged to have strapped on wings and glided. Brentjes recently commented that my discussion of her analysis of Ibn Firnas’ alleged flight was flawed because this flight was impossible based on the laws of physics, and therefore any literary discussion was necessarily wrong. According to Brentjes, Ibn Firnas could not have used any combination of wood, cloth, and feathers to glide because “eagle feathers and wings do not suffice for a glider, which needs a structure. The human body is too heavy for such a contraption.”
As I repeatedly said, the Arabic text Brentjes and Edis cited did not describe the wings, and we cannot deduce their design from the description given. But neither this does not mean that we must consign Ibn Firnas’ flight to fiction based on physics.
In 1891, a German named Otto Lilienthal constructed two wings on the model of bat wings, strapped them to himself, and jumped off a hill, thus inventing hang gliding. Photographic evidence exists showing his flight, and several of his gliders are still in existence. They did not have the kind of structure Brentjes requires; instead, they pretty much looked like wings strapped to a guy. Although there was a structure, it was not observable to those watching from a distance.
As I said before, there is no way to prove the story true short of turning up the glider, and 1001 Inventions wildly exaggerates any claim that could be made based on these texts. That said, there seems to be nothing so improbable as to suggest the story cannot be true. Fortunately, as it happens, we don’t need to really care much about this since, as Rothstein points out, this wasn't the first flight. The Chinese had been jumping from towers with wings strapped to themselves since the first century CE trying to fly. According to an eleventh century text drawing on earlier imperial records, in 559 CE, one finally succeeded under the wicked emperor Gao Yang:
Gao Yang made Yuan Huangtou and other prisoners take off from the Tower of the Phoenix attached to paper (kites in the form of) owls. Yuan Huantou was the only one who succeeded in flying as far as the Purple Way [2.5 km away], and there he came to earth. [brackets mine]
(qtd. in Colin A. Ronan, The Shorter Science and Civilization in China)