Last up date:1998/08/01
Origins and History

Origins and History was copied from "Kites" written by Ron Moulton and published by Pelham Books Ltd.,

While it is not the purpose of this book to cover in detail the whole story of kites through the ages, it is interesting to reflect on the way that kites have evolved and the purposes to which they have been put.


The kite was probably first put to practical use about 200BC, when the Chinese General Han Hsin is said to have used one to ascertain the length of a tunnel he needed to dig from his lines to the walls of a Palace which he was besieging. Even if you regard this as just a legend, the very early use of kites in China is clearly substantiated by the many other instances of sending 'red lanterns' aloft and dispatching messages from kite lines.
Subsequently, the kite was used in the East for amusement and at ceremonial festivals Kite flying gradually spread through Korea, Japan and Malaysia to India and across the South Pacific to the Americas The kite was to become part of the traditional heritage of Asia and the Far East The development of the trade route around the Cape of Good Hope brought Eastern kites to Europe, though they were not the decorative and complicated Oriental types that we immediately associate with China and Japan.
The European kite was derived from the simple two-stick fighting kite. At first this kite consisted of a curved bow lateral stick at the top of the spine to make a round-headed (peg-top) or peardrop shape. Later the two-stick kite was used with a straight lateral A tail was used. essential for stability in European conditions, and the original concept of the Asiatic fighting kite disappeared with a demand for something that would be easier to fly. Fortunately for all kite enthusiasts, progress did not stop with the adoption of the simple pear shape. And, equally fortunately, the Eastern traditions were maintained over the centuries. Apart from changes of materials, the shapes and character of the Chinese, Japanese. Malaysian and Indian kites of the present day closely resemble those of their forebears.


Before we become involved in the better-known kite variations, let us look at the native South Pacific kites, which are remarkable in a number of ways.
Made from planted grasses, leaves and tree bark, Polynesian kites were used for the practical purpose of trailing fishing hooks, and at ceremonial events of great social importance.
Some New Zealand Maori kites are said to have been man-lifting and there are many legends attached to their shapes. Most have a bird outline and trailing tails which carry symbolic ti-tree leaves, feathers or dog hair.
Regarded as sacred, the South Pacific kites form an important part of Polynesian tradition and illustrate close links in the development of widespread communities. A typical legend is one from Harvey Island, where, after a kite fight between the brothers Tone and Rango, the elder brother Rango became the victor and thus also the Patron of the Archipelagos, giving his name to the type of kite with a projecting spine, or backbone, with eight leaves stitched to four upright canes.
Rango is said to be the god of peace, war... and kites The Franks Collection in the Museum of Mankind, London, contains some fine kites from the islands of Melanesia. No one has yet attempted to produce commercial copies of them and it seems unlikely that these heavy kites would perform well outside their native Pacific environment where the winds are very strong and constant.


After the arrival of the Malay diamond-shaped fighter, and its early transition to the peg-top shape in Europe. the first record of the serious use of kites (apart from legislation to minimize kite-flying nuisances in France in 1736) came in the mid-eighteenth century, with simultaneous experiments in Scotland, France, Italy and North America to conduct electricity from the atmosphere.
The first of these attempts was made by a Scot, Alexander Wilson, who in 1749 sent thermometers aloft with fused releases to drop at intervals. The American statesman, Benjamin Franklin, achieved greater fame. In 1752, after six years of study, Franklin succeeded in conduction lightning along the damp hemp kite twine from a spike aerial on his diamond-shaped kite.
Ridiculed for some time, and contested by De Romas who claimed earlier discovery without practical demonstration, Franklin had invented the lightning conductor. Later experiments with wire kite-lines in Europe resulted in explosive discharges - a warning not to fly kites in a thundery atmosphere.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Sir George Carey used the peg-top kite as a glider His model of 1804 and subsegment man-carrying glider for which he became known as the Father of the aeroplane were to anticipate discoveries of a century later. Carey was not the only aerodynamicist to learn from kites. Lilienthai Pitcher, Chanute and the Wright brothers all used kites first as a study, using their findings later in the making of man-carrying sail-wing gliders, as emulated today by the hang glider.
Weather kites began to be used 'in train'. D. Colladon used three peg-tops on a common line to conduct electricity at Geneva in 1827-their spurs were 39ins (1m) long-and the search for knowledge of the atmosphere began to bear fruit. The same year also saw the publication of a remarkable work by George Pocock entitled 'The Aeropleustic Art of Navigation in the Air' by the Use of Kites or Buoyant Sails.
Pocock had harnessed a pony chaise to a pair of kites and discovered that, according to wind strength, it was possible to move up to half a ton on the carriage.
Special 'charvolants' were made for these first horseless carriages, and the largest held sixteen lads who no doubt enjoyed a thrilling ride Until the arrival of telegraph wires and railway bridges, it was claimed that the Pocock kite carriages could race mail-coaches from Bristol to London and back.
The basic kite design used was the peg-top but with modifications for a four-line control to capture an angled wind. Remember that this was the heyday of sail; a mastless aerial rig would not have been so unusual a spectacle at the time. A pilot kite went aloft first, then the main kite, and then, if needed, another. Any number could be used, but for carriage work two were usually enough. To stop, a line was blackened, the main kite collapsed, and a hoe-like brake stopped the carriage.
Pocock's other claims to fame were to send his daughter Martha aloft in an armchair to a height of 300 ft (90m); and to become the grandfather of the renowned W. G Grace, who travelled to some of his cricket matches by kite carriage.
In 1828 (two years after he obtained patent 5420 in partnership with Colonel James Viney, RA) Pocock demonstrated the char-volant at Ascot racecourse to King George IV Immediately afterwards, he raced against horse-drawn coaches on the road between Stained and Hounslow, handsomely beating them all.
At the Liverpool Regatta on 18 July 1828, one Alfred Pocock and nine others traversed the Mersey against strong tides and winds with a kite-drawn two-masted boat, to register great surprise among the nautical parties who witnessed it' (The Engineer). Viney and Pocock proposed that the kite carriage should have a dandy-cart to carry a pony in the event of the wind failing or being of an unfavourable direction', but the plan does not seem to have been carried out Tractive by kites continued to attract interest up to the turn of the century. but by then internal combustion and steam had been harnessed to provide more reliable means of propulsion Long after Pocock's carriage first raced, the kite was put to another use when the celebrated Samuel Franklin Cody conducted man-carrying kite trials .

In 1891, a photographer by the name of William Eddy. from Bayonet, New Jersey, created a bowed form of the diamond-shaped Malay kite by mentioning the lateral spar (Fig 2). This. in effect, applied a dihedral' to the design. (On aircraft this is the upward and outward sweep of the wings - an essential for stability. Applying it to a kite has a similar effect.) Eddy's kite was also much simpler than the peg-top. and adapted itself to an elementary bridle of two lines.
Moreover, the kite was stable enough not to need a tail, and it could be flown in tandem UP to eight Eddy kites were flown in train, and the combined lift was enough to overstrain the line, with amusing results Once a whole train broke away to trail across Staten Island to New York Bay, with the owner in chase by train and ferryboat.
The bowed Eddy kite is still a popular shape. Although it needs a tail in British conditions of changing wind forces and gusts at lower attitudes, an Eddy made from non-porous plastic will perform in the lightest of breezes, while a cloth Eddy will perform in gale-force conditions. Eddy himself was an experimenter. He took aerial photographs of battles in Cuba during the American-Spanish War and sent up flags and lanterns for publicity.
Similar in shape, Parakites' were the creation of a jeweller from Yorkers, New York. who rejoiced in the name of Gilbert Totter Woglom. In 1896. G T. Woglom published a book which described how, on 4 May 1895, he trailed a 10-ft (3-m) American Old Glory' flag at l,000ft (300m) above the military and civil ceremonies during the dedication of the Washington Memorial Arch in New York City (Fig. 3). Woglom set up a train of Parakites from the Judson Memorial Tower to carry the heavy flag aloft and was widely praised for his clever gesture.
News-paper reports quoted the number of kites variously as three, four, six and eight, but all agreed that Woglom stole the day with his spectacle; and none more so than Woglom himself in his book Parakites which, even eighty years after publication, and although written in quaint terminology, remains a classic reference to the Japanese, Malay, Chinese and Eddy types. It is worth recording that Woglom was the first to publish any reference to the aerofoil shape of the bowed two-stick kite.
He called it the "Twin concedes" -each as the inner side of that third of an egg shell which might be sawed off lengthwise from an egg'. Woglom was drawing attention to the sail curvature of the lower section of the kite which, as we shall see, is an important factor in its performance (Fig. 4) Woglom's train of kites used separate lines. each connected to the lower line at a point sufficiently well extended from the bridle to avoid fouling the kite below The method has advantages in that each kite on the train is then free to oscillate, or head in any direction without directly affecting the others The alternative means of linking lines, directly through each bridle from one kite top to the next and so on, is best limited to the rigid, centre-stick, modern Rogallo design. So in many ways, as kite-train flyer, flag lifter and author of the first general book on kites in the English language, Gilbert Totter Woglom deserves all the thanks that kite flyers of the present day can heap upon him Woglom was not, however, the first to produce technical reports. Scientific studies were available to academic bodies and among the most influential papers were those of Lawrence Hargrave. A trained engineer, Hargrave left England for Australia in 1866 and, in his search for the achievement of manned flight, began to experiment with kites during 1893 (Fig 5). Following the principle established by F. H Welham in a paper delivered to the Aeronautical Society in 1866.

Hargrave created the biplane box kite after first inventing his monoplanes (which are still impressive for their simplicity). All Hargrave's kites had the characteristic of fore and aft planes, supported by a framework They preceded the wing, tail and longeron fuselage concept of the aeroplane by a whole decade, and appeared in every possible configuration .
The most influentiaL however, was the box kite . Hargrave called it, quite correctly, the cellular kite', and he fully recognized that his biplanes adopted a cumbered aerofoil in flight.
This shape was to be widely adopted by many other pioneers. not only for kites but also in early full-size French aeroplanes, though not, as commonly supposed, by the Wright brothers.
Two aeroplanes even became famous when named Box Kites. at though in fact they had only a remote association with the Hargrave concept The Grahams-White Box Kite aeroplane did not even have a biplane tail, although it used two rudders, and the Bristol's Wright-style fore-plane elevator made it nothing like a Hargrave cellular kite.
Nevertheless the name persists, and regular flights are still made by a Bristol Box Kite replica from the Shuttleworth Collection aerodrome at old Warden, Bedford-shire.
It was built to appear in a film called Those Magnificent Men to Their Flying Machines.

Lawrence Hargrave's papers were published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales, and the information in them was quickly noted in America and Europe. On a lecture tour in England during 1899, he loaned some kites to the gliding pioneer P. S. Pitcher who was influenced by their success, but more important was their effect on Captain B. F. S Baden-Powell and Samuel Franklin Cody.
Hargrave's box kites went on sale in toyshops and Cody bought one for his son Vivian .
He made larger versions, added extension 'wings' with wire bracing, and within a year was to take out a patent (23566) for Sky-kites which would ascend in a train to lead a man-carrying kite with a wicker basket for an aerial observer. Some of the main kites reached spans of 36 ft (11m) and required substantial anchorage as well as very careful rigging.
Cody's system was simpler than that used by Baden-Powell, who linked four large hexagon kites with two lines anchored wide apart to form an inverted v. The observer's basket was then slung from each of the v-shaped cables and hoisted aloft, not always with results amenable to the occupant! The system was known appropriately as the Levitor.
In America, the US Weather Bureau was given money to conduct experiments with kites, and Hargrave's cellular construction was adapted by Professor C. F. Marvin to what became known as the Weather Bureau Hargrave-Marvin Box Kite.
These were designed in three sizes for varying wind strengths, and the moderate wind kite had a 6ft 8ins (2m) span, was 6ft 6ins (2m) long and 2ft 8-1/2ins (82cm) deep. It had a total lifting surface area of 66 sq ft (6.13 sq.m), weighed bulb (4kg) and was covered with Lonsdale cambric with sails 2 ft l.5ins (65 cm) wide and 6 ft 5 ins (2m) long. A head kite lifted the meteorograph, while secondary kites, attached to the main line with cords 124ft (38m) long, lifted the whole assembly many thousands of feet for observation. From 1897 these kites were flown at seventeen stations in the USA, once reaching a record height of 23,835 ft (7265 m).
Much later, during World War II, kites of similar design were deployed to carry defensive barrage cables from ships that were liable to attack by dive bombers. Further north, in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, two scientists were making separate kite experiments which were to have a profound influence. When Guglielmo Marconi lifted his 600-ft (183-m) receiving aerial on 12 December 1901 at St. John's to make the historic radio link with a transmitter at Poldhu in Cornwall, he used a winged box kite significantly, the same type of kite that was used by Marconi for his experiments is still sold. It is now known as the Brookite Master, and its design has not changed in almost eighty years.
Alexander Graham Bell's researches were directed at developing a flying machine. Inventor of the telephone, President of the National Geographic Society, and contemporary of Hargrave, he left Scotland to live in Canada and subsequently became a citizen of the United States. Bell admired Hargrave's work with box kites, and appreciated the one essential feature of the design - the open space between fore and aft planes. Bell found that the larger the space, the better the stability of the pitch.
He also praised the value of the vertical end plates which made up the boxes, but thought the structure required for rigidity was detracting from the efficiency of the box kite and objected to the drag-producing internal bracing. So Bell made triangular box cells which eliminated the internal bracing; he came to the conclusion that:
So far as I can judge from observation in the field, kites constructed on the same general model as the Hargrave Box Kite, but with triangular cells instead of quadrangular, seem to fly as well as the ordinary Hargrave form and at as high an angle. Such kites are therefore superior for they fly substantially as well while at the same time they are stronger in construction, lighter in weight and offer less head resistance to the wind.
Three-quarters of a century later, any present-day kite flyer will bear out what Bell said in his masterly account of 1903 (National Geographic Magazine, Vol. xiv, No 6, June 1903). The box kite needs strong winds to overcome its weight penalty.
Bell did not rest with the triangular box kite; he made it in coupled triplicates, then built up the units to a fifteen-cell compound and developed the tetrahedral frame of assembled triangles. Made to vast proportions and used in lateral-wing shape, box or compound triangle configuration, Bell's tetrahedral kites made a spectacular sight and were close to achieving the appearance and performance of an aeroplane. One 'floating' kite, which had two lateral tetrahedrons spaced apart on three fore and aft triangular bodies, lifted two men off the ground before its thick manila rope parted.
The Floater pitched violently (as would any glider if its bowline broke) and then settled down to land on an even keel undamaged after its rough experience. The date was a year before the Wright brothers' flight further down the east coast of the USA. Bell's kite had shown that in free flight it was quite stable; but he did not take his experiments any further toward achieving manned flight Much of his Nova Scotia laboratory work is preserved at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Park Museum, Baddeck. Nova Scotia. where the originals are splendidly displayed Meanwhile, in France, another book appeared - Les Cerfs-Volants Observatoires by J. Lecornu.
The author had created his own variant of the Hargrave box kite by piling three cells one above the other in ladder form. when properly braced with a rigid vertical member on either side, and a forward-reaching bridle. the Lecornu ladder had great lifting power, and was like a rigid first cousin to the modern paraffin Lecornu's book revealed details of other pioneers, including Maddox and Saconney who had adapted the Hargrave box with side wings and created man-lifting trains. Hargrave's influence was truly worldwide.

Like BelL Louis Bliriot (who was later to be the first person to fly the English Channel) preferred the triangular-section box He added triangular side wings to the upper plane of the triangular-section main body, and this shape was made in quantity as the Military Kite. Bliriot formed the central box frames and their panels with rigid bracing and extended the length so that instead of fore and aft boxes some had three filled-in panels. one forward, one central and one aft. The shape proved to be extremely stable over a broad wind-speed range and it was adopted by Silas J Conyne in the USA .
The Conyne kite had a difference in that the central body-or box frame-was made up of three longerons and fabric so that the triangular box had flexible sides. This gave the advantage that once the single lateral spar was detached the whole kite could be rolled up. This feature had been well established in the Brookites on sale then (and now) in Britain, and shows what little change has been made to the basic winged box kite in the twentieth century. Larger versions of the Bliriot require two lateral sticks to extend the side sails of the flat kite portion, and some have extensive bracing in the box sides to keep the panels extended. This is an important point for the airflow through the box is considerable, and the panels should not be allowed to flap-or luff.
This account of the early days of kiting has of necessity glossed over the achievements of many other pioneers who worked in parallel with those mentioned. It is not the intention of this book to provide a complete historical account, but to explain how shapes and types were derived Now we enter the twentieth century, in which organized competitions were planned to promote progress.


It seems incredible now that clearly as 25 June 1903, the Aeronautical Society offbeat Britain should be holding its thirty-eighth session-for the Wright brothers had yet to make their first powered flight. The Society's interest was centred upon balloons and airships, and at this meeting, for the first time, on kites. An international contest was organized for the highest flight above 3,000ft (900m) attained by a single kite, and the award was a silver medal.
More than a thousand people assembled on that Thursday at Findon, including representatives of the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian governments. Among six eminent judges was Sir Hiram Maxim and the eight competitors included the President of the Society, Major Baden-Powell of the Scots Guards S.F Cody was favoured to win with his bat-winged box, and he was backed by a second entry flown by his elder son, Leon. The wind, however, was too light.

No one reached the 3,000-ft (900-m) target and the contest was won by charles Brogden's six-winged bird kite which registered a greatest height of 1,816ft (548m) . This kite was huge, with a span of 18 ft 8ins (5.5m) and a length of 7ft (5.18m). One centre pole supported three literals and these formed leading edges for the six wings. In other words, it was an enormous Eddy type with four cut-outs to break the mainsail into six parts. Cody expressed confidence that his kite would eventually lead to a powered flying machine, and on that he was indeed prophetic S. H. R. Salmon was another competitor who favoured multiple cells He flew a rhomboidal kite at this contest. and at a 1907 contest used an eighteen-winged. IO-ft (3-m) span monster (Fig. 19) which flew in the lightest of breezes and took a meteorograph to 1,600ft (48Om).
Another early contest was that organized by the Italians to celebrate the inauguration of the Simpson Tunnel. It was an international event and was held at the Milan Exhibition of 1906. Split into two sections, it was first a contest for altitude above l,000m (3,280ft) with a 2-kg (4.4-lb) payload, and second an event for passenger-carrying kites that, in the words of the regulations, 'realized most completely the idea of the competitor'.


Meanwhile, the Kite Flying Association of Great Britain had been formed under the presidency of Major Baden-Powell and exhibitions began to be planned at Olympia in conjunction with other sports and pastimes.
W. H. Akehurst was the organizing secretary and it was largely due to his hard work that the KFA developed, with a long list of famous patrons and councillors, into the Kite and Model Aeroplane Association in February 1909. Typical of the K and MAA activities were lectures, by personalities such as Marconi on 'Wireless Telegraphy and Kites', while at Wimbledon Common regular events were arranged for the most practical and useful method of employing a Kite or Kites to Life-Saving, Photography, Signalling, etc', and open events where angle of line, stability, construction and portability were given points.
Kite contests usually stipulated a statutory length of line - 900ft (275 m)- and opened with a bugle call. If a kite came down before the bugle sounded the close of the contest, it was disqualified.
Programmes for these annual meetings carried fascinating advertisements. Brookite illustrated, with the Martini Wireless Telegraph Company's endorsement, kites that are still sold today, and James J. Hicks of Hatton Garden offered patent self-registering altimeters' as used by Mr. Cody' and the W. H Dines meteorograph for registering the pressure, temperature, humidity and wind velocity of the upper air. In the course of time, not to mention the outbreak of war in 1914, the KFA and K and MAA activities ceased organized kite flying faded away and although the columns of Flight and The Model Engineer sustained exchanges of ideas, it was not until 1975 that any move was made to re-establish a British Kite Flying Association .
A rally organized by the author at old Warden on 12 October 1975 started a revival of the KFA, with a newsletter service to co-ordinate national activities. In 1977, a European Kitefliers Association was created to foster international activities, and together, the BKFA and the EKA illustrate the strength of British kiting.


In America the AKA (American Kitefliers Association) provides a quality magazine for its members, and co-ordinates news of festivals, new products and books. In the pages of Kite Tales we can learn of new materials or old pioneer designs, where to find specialist kite shops, or what happened at the Washington rally. It is the only USA publication offering exclusive news on kites alone, and many enthusiasts outside the USA become members of the AKA in order to keep up with developments. Badges and car stickers can be purchased to declare allegiance to the pastime, and since its launching in October 1964, Kite Tales' readership has grown continuously.
For years it was dependent on the work of Robert M. Ingraham, who stimulated the AKA through his personal efforts. In 1977, it was taken over by Valeric Going, a similarly dedicated enthusiast.
Will Yolen, raconteur exceptional in the kite world, and author of several books on kites, is also founder and president of the IKA or International Kitefliers Association. The world headquarters is at 321E 48th Street, New York, NY 10017, USA. Another organization in New York is the Go Fly A Kite Association based in the world-famous specialist shop at 1434 3rd Avenue, New York, NY 10028, USA. The west coast equivalent is Dave Checkley's Kite Factory at 678 W Prospect, Seattle, Washington 98110, USA.


Many nations have regular kite festivals. Japan is, of course, a traditional centre for the highly decorated O-dako huge kite, which is flown at Hammamatsu with great ceremony.
Poland has many enthusiasts of the swieto latawca, as the kite is known in Polish. Czechoslovakia has a keen following for draky, Germany for its drachen, and so on in Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, etc.
In Japan the JKA was started by author and lecturer Professor Tsutomu Hiroi, who made a great impression with his demonstrations in France and Britain in 1976. The JKA is based at 4-32-7 Kitakarasuyama Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 157. In India the KFA of India is at 3126 Lal Darwaza Bazaar, Sita Ram, Delhi 6, India.

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