Last up date:1998/08/01
A Brief History

A brief history was copied from "The Creative Book of Kites" written by Sarah Kent and published by Smithmark Publishers

Since the beginning of time, man has dreamed of bird-like@flight; a dream that is manifest in texts and illustrations dating right back to 500 B. C. It is not known precisely where and when the first kite was flown, but it is popularly held that the Chinese led the way with early aerodynes copying the form of birds. It is certain, however, that more than two millennia before Isaac Newton discovered the force of gravity, the invention of kites was already fueling mankind's desire to defy it.

Although the earliest accounts of kite flying seem to center around the Far East and Egypt, kites embarked on a worldwide odyssey following ancient trade routes. In this way they were adopted on virtually every continent, acquiring new forms and mythologies as they entered different cultures.


One popular Chinese legend tells of a farmer whose hat was blown off by a gust of wind as he toiled in a paddy field. Intrigued by the ability of his headgear to fly, he retrieved it and attached it to a length of twine, thus creating the first kite. Another early account describes a wooden framed, bird-shaped kite built and flown in China around 500 B. C.
Kite flying became a hugely popular pastime in China, inspired by the festival of Ascending on High, an event that has taken place each year for hundreds of years. It is celebrated on the ninth day of the ninth month, as this was the day on which an entire family had been saved from peril by their love of kites. On the eve of this fateful day, a father dreamed that catastrophe would befall his family. Not@knowing quite what action to take to avert the premonished doom, this wise and placid man took his wife and children to a quiet spot in the countryside where they spent what might have been their final hours happily indulging in kite-flying, their favorite pastime. On returning home that evening, they found that sure enough, their house had collapsed, destroying all they had possessed. The simple act of flying a kite had spared them from being buried amid the rubble, and thereafter was celebrated by thousands as an exceedingly fortuitous way to spend the same date.

Always vehicles for the imagination, kites themselves have inspired many diverse feats. It is said that in 169 B. C. a Chinese general, Han Hsin, flew a kite over the walls of a palace, using the length of its string to gauge the distance that his troops would have to tunnel in order to enter this enemy territory surreptitiously.


In A. D. 1282, the explorer Marco Polo gave his own account of enormous kites being used by Chinese sailors to lift terrified men from the decks of ships. The success or failure of this operation was taken as an augury for the planned voyage.
Early Japanese prints bear testament to similar feats of man-carrying. One depicts the son of Minamoto-no-Tametomo, an ingenious Samurai warrior, being flown from his island of exile lashed to the sail of a huge rectangular Edo kite. These acts of man-lifting foretold a much later time when nineteenth-century aeronautic pioneers, such as Samuel Franklin Cody, would use kites as a basis for experiments in early forms of aviation.


It is believed that the first kites to arrive in Japan were brought there by Buddhist missionaries in around A. D. 700, during the Twang Dynasty. These kites probably held profound religious significance, as many types of kite throughout the world do still. After all, there is no simpler expression of transcendence so appropriate to a multitude of philosophies.
On May 5 each year, every Japanese household to which son has been born flies a windsock in the form of a carp. The celebration, known as Boys' Festival, is also an occasion to fly magnificently hand-painted kites. This echoes the Korean practice of inscribing kites with the name and date birth of each male child.
These are flown to the furthest extent of the string, then released to drift far and free on the wind, bearing away any evil spirits that might otherwise hinder the child in his future years.
Japanese ingenuity soon gave rise to more practical reasons for flying kites. They even became tools of the high-rise building trade as hoists for carrying materials aloft to craftsmen engaged in the construction of towers.
Certainly, Japan has a rich and diverse kite culture. Almost every region has its own unique design, one of the best known being the Nagasaki Hata. Minute by comparison with the giant Edos, this kite measuring about 1ft (30cm) square was adapted from Indian fighter kites introduced to Japan in the early 1540s by Western European traders.


By way of contrast to more ethereal flying urges, kite fighting is dynamic, exhilarating, and requires vigorous cunning. The object of a kite fight is to cut your opponent s string. Achieving such a victory requires a combination of sheer skill and copious amounts of ground glass or porcelain stuck to the kite string using a paste made from rice or egg white. One form of Japanese fighting kite is the six-sided Rokkaku.
This type can still be found doing battle in the skies over many international kite festivals at the hands of teams of three or more pilots clad in distinguishing garb.
Kite fighting also became a popular alternative sport in Malaysia, Korea, and Polynesia, where it flourished alongside religious flying ceremonies.


Polynesian folklore tells of such a contest between the two wind gods, Range and Tane. These sparring brothers flew in airborne combat, soaring and diving, until suddenly the tail of Tale's kite became ensnared in the branches of a tree. This, in kiting terms, was the end of the road for Tane, and Range, the elder, was proclaimed winner. The battle for supremacy in the skies has long been reenacted by the people of Polynesia, where the highest kite is said to be endowed with the victorious spirit of Range.
In Malaysia, before recorded history, kites were flown to appease the gods who preside over the monsoon. In secret ceremonies, hundreds of small palm-leaf kites were offered up on coastal breezes to quell the powerful and often destructive seasonal typhoons.
Beyond their spiritual or combative role in the southern Pacific region, kites have long been a part of the essential human tool kit for survival. For centuries, fishing has been the main industry of the Malay and Polynesian archipelagos, and kites have played a vital role in bringing home the catch. These fishing kites are simple constructions of leaf sails supported by bamboo frames. Their purpose is to carry a fishing line out beyond shallow coastal waters, without casting ominous shadows or disturbing the wafer's surface. The same artful method is sometimes used by anglers in other parts of the world.


Although it is widely believed that kites originated in the Far East, there is evidence to suggest that the ancient Greeks explored fathered flight independently. As far back as 400 B. C., records describe a flying object which became known as the Dove of Tarentum. This was the invention of a scientist named Archytas and was, as its name implies, derived from the study of birds in flight.
Even in Greek mythology there is the notion that Icarus ascended on some form of kite. The legend, which tells of his ill-fated flight on wings made from wax and feathers, and his untimely descent into the waters of the Aegean Sea, could easily be describing a primitive man-carrying device.


Myth often gives rise to speculation about the truth on which it may be founded. The Elephantine Papyrus, made in Egypt in around 500 B. C., is a hieroglyphic account of a legendary palace being constructed in the sky, between Heaven and Earth. It tells of eagles carrying building materials aloft; an unlikely event in itself, but research into these images has unfolded some remarkable possibilities.
Archaeologists found that the imagery of the Elephantine Papyrus bore similarity to much older stone carvings also located in Egypt. However, these stone images clearly depict a group of people standing at ground level holding lines of twine or rope. A question arises: could they have been using large kites as a means of hoisting materials aloft? After all, this practice was developed during a later era in Japan. The eagles mentioned in the papyrus possibly amount to little more than poetic license taken by its author, who may not have been familiar with the concept of kites.
Further proof of an ancient Egyptian interest in flight can be found in the archives of Cairo Museum. The object in question is a highly stylized clay model of a bird which dates back to around 200 B. C. Bird forms in Egyptian art of this era are not unusual, but this one is distinguished by its maker's understanding of fundamental aerodynamics. At a glance, this bird could be mistaken for a twentieth century model glider.


During the first century A. D., the Romans adopted hollow windsock banners which they termed Draco: the Latin for dragons. So named because of their fearsome adornment, they probably fell into Roman hands during a Middle Eastern conflict. Not only were these fitting standards to carry into battle, they also indicated wind direction, giving the Roman archers an advantage over enemy troops. Gradually, these windsocks evolved, unhitched from supporting poles to become kites, as illustrations in fourteenth-century manuscripts attest.


By the early 1600s, the more conventional diamond-shaped kite had become popular in Europe. This was a direct descendant of similarly shaped kites that had long been popular in Malaysia. This style has endured to the present day, becoming widely recognized. Its familiar shape appears in A. A. Milne's stories of Winnie The Pooh. It was also immortalized as the sort of kite which carried Mary Poppins over the roof tops of London.
Kites entered Europe via the silk trade routes from the Orient to become an established part of the culture.
Perhaps the most dangerous toy of its time was the Fiery Drake, which appeared during the seventeenth century, taking the form of a gunpowder-laden device that was ignited when aloft. The result was a rapid, vertical volley of firecrackers followed by a final flare of light as the entire kite exploded into flames. Such a scene was magnificently recalled by the writer, John Bates, who in 1634 described the method of construction: coat the linen sail of a kite with linseed oil and shellac, then make a tail from paper and firecrackers. For added awesomeness, sulfur, pitch, and wax could be painted onto the sail, and a "fiery" message dramatically displayed.
By the 1640s, these kites were hissing and crackling wrathful messages from God in far-flung missionary posts. And so it happened that kites also became vehicles for airborne advertising.


In the mid-eighteenth century, scientists looked skyward and started to use kites to explore atmospheric phenomena. The first recorded experiment was conducted by a Scotsman named Alexander Wilson. In 1749 he made highly ingenious use of kites to lift a series of thermometers in order to measure the air temperature at various attitudes ranging up to 3,oooft (900m).
Three years later, in 1752, Benjamin Franklin attached a metal key to the string of his kite and flew it, somewhat perilously, in a thunderstorm, proving lightning to be a visible discharge of electricity. The innovative Franklin was also credited with the invention of an early form of body surfing when he harnessed the pulling power of a large kite to propel himself across a pond.


This quest for an airborne means of fraction was later to become the obsession of George Pocock, a schoolteacher from Bristol, in England. In 1826, Pocock patented his revolutionary invention, the Char Volant, a carriage towed by a number of English arch-top k~es. This forerunner of the modern three-wheeled kite buggy was able to carry four passengers at speeds of up to 20 miles (32km) an hour. It posed a problem, however, for toll collectors as there was nothing in nineteenth-century English law that defined such a vehicle. Consequently, no road tax could be collected from Pocock, and for a time he was allowed to ride the English West Country highways for free.
Although restricted in its movement by the wind's strength and direction, the Char Volant could be steered by means of two or more control linens attached to the kites themselves. Not only had Pocock set the wheels of kite-powered transportation in motion, he had also planted vital seeds for the development of a later generation of aerobatic sport kites.

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