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history of kites

Kite Origins

It’s unclear when kites were invented. Many scholars believe that they were developed in China. Other evidence suggests that kites were used by cultures in Malaysia, Indonesia and the South Pacific as fishing instruments made of natural materials like leaves and reeds. Anthropological evidence suggests that kites may have been independently developed in other areas but these claims are not well documented.

In 450 BC, famous Chinese philosopher Mo-tse who spent three years carefully crafting a wooden bird to fly on a tethered line. There is some debate on whether this reference is considered a kite.

The earliest written account of kite flying is in China in 200 BC, supporting China’s claim to the origin of the kite. The Chinese General Han Hsin of the Han Dynasty flew a kite over the walls of a city he was attacking to measure how far his army would have to tunnel to reach past the defenses.

By the 13th Century, kite flying had spread by traders from China to Korea, and across Asia to India and the Middle East. Each area developed a distinctive style of kite and cultural purpose for flying them.

Spread to Europe

In the late 13th century, European explorer, Marco Polo, describes in his book (1295), kites and their man-lifting capabilities after seeing Chinese merchants using kites to determine whether a voyage would be prosperous or not.

Kite flying spread throughout Europe between 14th and 15th Centuries with mentions by Vasco da Gama, Giovanni della Porta and William Shakespeare.

Sailors also brought kites back from Japan and Malaysia in the 16th and 17th centuries. Kites were regarded as curiosities at first and had little impact on European culture.

METEOROLOGICAL AND SCIENTIFIC USES

In the 18th century, kites continued to increase in popularity among children. However, it was the use of kites by physicists and meteorologists that spurred the development of kites for scientific purposes. Some of the most famous are Alexander Wilson & Thomas Melville (U-Glasgow) who made the 1st recorded weather experiments using kites in 1749, Benjamin Franklin (USA) and De Romas (France) begin conducting electrical experiments with kites in 1752-3. It wasn’t until late in the 1800s that kites were used regularly for meteorological observation.

During the 19th century, kites were used not only for scientific purposes like studying weather and understanding the atmosphere, but for lifting (lifting objects like cameras, thermometers, and people) and traction (using kites to pull things like carriages). 

One of the strangest uses of kite power was developed in 1822 by George Pocock, a U.K. schoolmaster. Pocock created a carriage pulled by a pair of arch top kites. His “char-volant” was capable of speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. The kites were flown in tandem and steered by four independent lines. Since the road toll was based on the number of horses pulling a carriage, this horseless rig was ruled exempt from road tolls because no animals were used. 

In 1903, Samuel Franklin Cody, using a train of his patented Cody Kites and a collapsible 14 foot canoe, crossed the English Channel from Calais France to Dover England in just under four hours.

EARLY AERODROMES/AIRPLANE

Many of the experiments and developments during 1800s lead directly to the eventual development of the powered airplane and transatlantic wireless communications in the early 20th century.

The Wright Brothers were skilled at kite flying, and it was their years of kite flying that directly led to the invention of their airplane. One day while flying box kites at Kitty Hawk, the brothers discovered that the kites provided enough lift to be able to lift a man off the ground.

In August of 1899, they built a biplane kite, also known as a warping kite. They discovered that by varying the position of the four lines attached near the kite’s extremities, they could simulate the twisting of the wings of a soaring bird. This they called wing-warping lateral control; a method that was to characterize Wright’s airplane for years to come.

In 1901, Alexander Graham Bell developed a prototype of his tetrahedral kite, a three-dimensional rigid kite that when connected together can be built to any size without having to have thicker and stronger sticks as the kite grows bigger

Bell’s tetrahedral kite would eventually be used to lift as much as 288 pounds and would be the basis of future powered “aerodromes”.

MILITARY USAGE

The invention of the powered airplane is not the end of the use of kites. During World War I (1914-1918), the British, French, Italian, and Russian armies all had kite units for enemy observations and signal corps. In World War II (1939-1945) the U.S. Navy found uses for kites such as Harry Saul’s Barrage Kite (anti-aircraft), the Gibson-Girl Box Kite (air rescue), and Paul Garber’s Target Kite (target practice and aircraft recognition). 

THE SPACE AGE

Since World War II, two of kite innovations, Francis Rogallo’s flexi-wing (1948) and Domina Jalbert’s parafoil (1964) kites, have helped develop the modern hang-gliders and sports parachutes, respectively.

Rogallo had originally invented the flexi-wing (also referred to as the Rogallo wing) with the idea to create an aircraft which would be simple enough and inexpensive enough that anyone could have one. In 1952, he used the newly developed Mylar material and created the five-dollar toy “Flexikite”. 

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rogallo worked with NASA to utilize his design (renamed the Parawing) as an alternative recovery system for the Gemini space capsules. NASA ultimately went with round parachutes, but Rogallo’s design has inspired numerous hang-glider designs.

Another design developed during the 1960s was by Domina Jalbert, who invented a ram-air double-surfaced fully flexible airfoil. This invention would profoundly change kiting, parachuting, and hang-gliding. All parafoils owe their roots to Jalbert’s “Multi-cell Wing Type Aerial Device”.

KITES AS A SPORT

Until the early 1600s, kites were typically used for the amusement of adults. But illustrations started emerging of kids playing with pear-shaped kites around 1618, and kites continued to increase in popularity among children until today.

In 1972, Peter Powell introduced a toy dual-line stunter and the public began to fly kites not only for fun, but also for sport. Millions of his kites were sold and flying steerable kites became a craze in the mid-70’s. The popularity of all types of multiple-line kite flying today can be attributed directly to Powell’s development of a modern dual-line kite.

Enthusiasts experimented with new designs for the stunt kite, based in part on the work of Rogallo and Jalbert. These kites could fly precise maneuvers, go faster, or perform intricate tricks. 

Being able to do precise maneuvers with a controllable kite gave birth to sport kite competitions. Starting the early 1970s and continuing today, sport kite competitions are held all over the world. Kite pilots compete in areas of discipline such as ballet, precision, and also together as a team.

In the 1980s, sport kite development utilized new materials such as carbon/fiberglass tubes and rip-stop nylon. Two of the most influential kite developments during this time can be attributed to Don Tabor who introduced the “Hawaiian” team kite in 1982 and Joseph Hadzicki, who developed and patented the quad-line controllable kite in 1988.

LARGE KITE DISPLAYS AND TRACTION SPORTS

In the mid-1980s, the modern kite field began to transform with large themed kites and traction sports.

One of the most influential kitemakers and designers during this time is Peter Lynn of New Zealand. Starting in 1985, Peter began developing large inflatable theme kites, and has went on to develop the first practical three-wheeled kite buggy. Along with his C-Quad single-skin semi-rigid traction kite, this helped launch a whole new traction sport such as buggy races and cross-country events. Peter Lynn has also been credited with producing the world’s largest kites numerous times. 

Throughout the 1990s and continuing today, Kite Surfing has become a legitimate extreme sport. Combining the skills of kite flying and surfing, kite pilots take to the water with specifically designed airfoils that provide tremendous lift and enable their fliers to perform amazing acrobatics.