From Toy to Airplane: A Brief History of Kites

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Kites have been around for the last 3000 years. The humble kite is one of man’s most versatile inventions. It has been put to all kinds of uses. Espionage has been successfully conducted using kites, scientists have used them to unravel the mysteries of natural phenomena, and they have been used to ward off evil spirits, appease the gods, as symbols of superiority and as very popular children’s toys. Most importantly the ancient flying kite has been the precursor to manned flight.

It is generally accepted that kite flying originated in China. Legend has it that one windy morning a farmer in Shandong, China, tired of chasing his runaway hat, secured it with a string. The ensuing flying hat sparked off the invention of the kite.

Early kites were made of bamboo, silk and paper. They were flat and rectangular. The bow line came later. The kites were decorated with myth motifs and legendary figures. Emperors saw the value of kites in military operations and started building wooden prototypes that could hold soldiers. General Han Hsin of the Han Dynasty sent a kite over the wall of his enemy’s territory. He used the kite to judge the length of tunnel he would have dig to slip his troops part the enemy defence line. Guess what? This simple ruse worked.

Traders spread the art of kite making and flying to Korea, Japan, Myanmar, India, Arabia and North Africa. One version of the kite that became very popular in Asia was the fighter kite. In Japan and India especially kite competitions became very popular. Fighter kites are small and flat with a diamond shape. They are flown without tails for greater manoeuvrability. A length of string coated in an abrasive material is attached to the bow. This is then tied to soft cotton string. The abrasive section is used to cut the string of the opponents kite during a competition.

Kites made of leaves have been flown in the islands of the South Seas, since time immemorial. The art of making paper, silk and bamboo kites may have developed independently in Malay Peninsula, Indonesia, Oceania and as far as east as Easter Island.

In the seventh century Buddhist monks flew kites over the rice fields to dispel any evil spirits that may harm the crops.

An ingenious thief used a kite to fly to the top of a building and make off with the golden statue from the roof.

Once kites became known in the Western world, they were immediately employed in scientific pursuits. In 1295, Marco Polo was the first to actually document methods of kite construction and flying. By the 16th century kites had become very popular children’s toys in Europe. By the 18th century they were scientific tools.

In 1749, alexander Wilson, a Scottish meteorologist, attached thermometers to kites to measure the temperature of the atmosphere at 300 ft. In 1752, Benjamin Franklin and his son William, used a kite to prove that lightening was merely electricity, not the wrath of the Gods as people believed.

The US Weather Service used kites to study the earth and forecast the weather. In the 1950’s NASA used kites in spaceship recovery.

Many new kite designs appeared. Kites of various shapes were developed. They became sleeker and more flexible. The Para foil kite led to the development of hang gliders.

In the 19th century British scientist modified a kite design to make the first glider. Otto Lilienthal of Germany became the first man to soar the skies in a kite.

The brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright modified a kite design to include wing warp leading to the first successful flying machine.

Today kite flying is a hobby and a profession. There are stunt kites and power kites. Kite flying is so popular that in 1964 the American Kite Fliers Association was formed. There are more than 4000 members from 35 nations. The association hosts a well-attended Annual Convention.

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