Last up date:1998/08/01
A History of Kites

A History of Kites was copied from "Kite Craft" written by Lee Scott Newman & Jay Hartley Newman and published by Crown publishers, Inc.,

How the kite was discovered is a matter for conjecture. Perhaps a farmer lost his hat on a windy day, or a mariner's sail escaped in the breeze. Or, as Clive Hart suggests, the kite may have been the logical extension of banners and peasants which, when stiffened with crosspieces, became kites. In any case, we sense that the kite resulted from the random observation of objects acted upon by a natural phenomenon) and because the phenomenon is the wind-uncontrollable, perhaps unfathomable-early observers and kite makers felt a very special, spiritual relationship with this toy or tool which allowed them to become a part of such a distant and powerful force.
Within this context, it is easy to see how the kite achieved and maintained a mythical and religious significance in many cultures, mainly in the Orient. From records of its earliest uses we find the kite used continually as a vane of the fates, as a tool for prophesying, and as an object for celebration of birth, happiness, fertility, and victory. The kite began, not as the reasoned invention of a scientific mind, but as a wondrous and even magical link with the heavens.
Almost certainly the kite originated in China over 2000 years ago. No matter what we choose to accept as its inspiration, the materials for kitemaking surely existed there: bamboo for frame, and silk for material and line.
From China, the kite spread rapidly throughout Asia Japan, which absorbed so much of Chinese culture, was the first to embrace the kite, and it was also adopted in Korea, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India where substantially different designs developed. Kites were also know early in Polynesia, and forms existed on Easter Island as well. In Europe there is a record of a kite being flown by the Greek scholar Archytas who lived in the fifth century B.C, but evidence suggests that this could have been an import from the east. The American continent knew no indigenous kites in ancient times.


Chinese folklore is rich in tales of kites flown for purpose and pleasure. Most interesting are the military uses which the Chinese found for kite forms In fact. the most widespread account of the kite's origin describes the use of a kite by General Han Hsin. While laying siege to a palace, the general is said to have flown a kite over the walls in order to gauge the distance between his forces and the fortress. Using the length of line as a guide, he tunneled under the walls to surprise the defenders.
Around the beginning of the Christian era, during the Han Dynasty, kites, according to legend, caused troops to Oee in terror.
They had been flown over the camp of the invading army one night with bamboo hummers attached. As the legend goes, spies within the camp spread rumors that the horrible moans and screeches were the voices of the gods declaring defeat for the invaders. The enemy was thus routed.
Chinese skill in creating kites both fine and huge appears to have reached high levels. Man-lifting kites were employed as observation posts-and the danger involved in such flights was capitalized upon as a grave punishment as well.
Though China was the birthplace of the kite, other eastern cultures developed distractive kite designs and traditions, too Japan, in contrast to Chinese exploitation of the kite as a technological and functional object, welcomed the kite for its ceremonial and religious value Kites figure in religious episodes and are present in many paintings relating to religious subjects. And, of course, Japanese history is rich in the lore of kite shenanigans.
The famed and daring thiefKakinkoki Kinsukeis said to have built a man-sized kite which carried him to the roof of the Nagoya Castle dungeon, allowing him to steal the solid gold fins of the dolphins perched there A practical application was devised by the architect Kawamura Zuiken who lifted materials to his workmen with the help of kites.
Indeed, not only did the Japanese show great ingenuity in their use of kites, but they proved to be incredibly talented at designing improvements for high filrrs. There are hundreds of kite designs, many with symbolic importance.
Japanese folk hero Kintoki (said to have been raised by bears in the mountains, and to have become the strongest man in Japan and an aide to the emperor) has been forever immortalized through the kite. His face is painted on Sagara kites which are given by friends and family to children as congratulatory gifts.
Kites decorated with a crane or turtle symbolize long life; the famed dragon kite denotes prosperity because of the dragon's ability to rise to the heavens. Other kites are said to bring luck, frighten evil spirits, give hope for knowledge and learning, abet fertility, provide good fishing, and so on. From the basic rectangular form that originated in China, each culture began its own design exploration. In Japan, figurative designs were especially important. Human, animal, and object forms were all inspirations for the Japanese kitemakers, as they were for the Chinese Even forms as modern as the airplane are represented in current designs.
An exceptionally versatile and innovative invention by the Japanese was the Nagasaki fighting kite. This kite is one of the most finely tuned fighters ever designed. Usually no more than a yard long, it will fly in any direction at great speed with or without a tail. It is constructed with a carefully formed horizontal spar of bamboo, a single vertical spine, and paper reinforced with string Balance and symmetry are essential, but the responsiveness makes those efforts worth-while.

In Nagasaki, these kites were used, along with others of Korean design, for kite fights In order to provide kites with weapons with which to sever an opponent's string, the line was often doctored ("glazed") with powdered glass or porcelain bonded with egg white or another natural adhesive. Special knives were also developed, and the goal was always to set the other kite free of its owner. The loss of a kite meant a blow to the ego of the filer, to be sure, but it was expensive as well. The defeated might lose substantial amounts of silk line as well as the kite. Skillful fliers could (and still do) encircle and ensnare the defeated opponent's severed kite, bring it back to earth, and claim it as spoils.
Control, of course, is an admirable goal, but the Japanese sought to build very large kites as well. The nineteenth century charted a path of increased development of kites-culminating in the construction of the wanwan. The wan-wan, 20 yards in diameter, with a tail 480 feet long, a weight of nearly a ton and a 35-leg bridle was the result of intense community planning, launching, and flying. The tradition, though devoid of some of the frenzy that marked the originals, persists today. A notable festival occurs yearly at Hamamatsu, where hundreds participate in the construction and flying of the largest of kites.
Malaysia also has long had a kite culture. Leaf-shaped fishing kites from which line was strung provided native fishermen with a means of lightly suspending their baited hooks without frightening the prey. Often these kites were made of leaves reinforced with sticks or bamboo. A variety of kite shapes evolved there as well or special interest is the moon kite or wan bulan, the bottom half of which is shaped like a new moon. Variations of this kite are constructed: some as large as a man, some 10 feet high.
The construction makes them particularly mancuverable and popular for kite fighting, although for many years kite fighting in Malaysia has been forbidden because of the large number of disputes that have arisen from them.

In Polynesia, kites have long been important as a means of making contact with the heavens. Folklore records many incidents where kites have symbolized gods or have been the toys of the gods. In many cases, Polynesian kites were associated wig birds and constructed in that configuration. But again, turtles, human figures, and abstract shapes were known even in early times.
Most often, a native bark cloth (tapa) was used there in combination with wood, rushes, feathers, and shells, which produced a rattle in flight.


In comparison to these cultures, kites came rather late to the West. There is some suggestion that a Greek mathematician, Archytas, flew what might have been a kite as early as 400 B.C. It could, conceivably, have been an import of a Chinese invention, but little evidence supports either a claim for invention or importation. There is spatulation that the Cretan legend of Icarus (who flew too close to the sun on wax wings and perished) might have been inspired by stories of men flying aboard kites.
And, although other references to kites are present in both Greek and Egyptian cultures, it is still assumed that the role of kites fell far short of their role in the Orient. Hart traces a chain of discovery through the Dachas wind-sock standard, draco.
This device was often used by the legions. Faced like otherworldly dragons, these pennons gave inspiration to the fighters and, hopefully, frightened their enemies. Later innovations apparently involved the use of fire-perhaps as an added dragonlike illusion-but, as is its wont, hot air forced through the wind sock caused it to rise, suggesting the kinglike potential. Diamond-, lozenge-, and pear-shaped kites were designed in Europe in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries.
But the eighteenth century ushered in a new era in the use of kites in the West. The development of kites as flying machines and as tools of scientific inquiry became the passion of many men.
The first record of a scientific experiment using kites describes the work of Alexander Wilson in 1749, using a series of kites flown in train with thermometers attached.
The objective was to determine the variation in temperatures at different attitudes. This preceded the most famous of all kite expertments by just a few years .

In the famous experiment of raising a kite during a thunderstorm during June 1752, Benjamin Franklin provided one of the very first evidences of the existence and effect of electric current. He later gave very detailed instructions as to how the experiment might be repeated, and he cautioned that the end of the string should be kept quite dry, lest the experimenter receive the full shock of the current.
Other experimenters, of course, followed Franklin's lead. They used different wires and different subjects (like animals) to judge the effects of electricity. Of special note is the fact that most kites built to be raised during strolls were protected in some measure against the elements. Some varnished their papers, and others, like Franklin, used silk handkerchiefs which would not absorb much water and would also maintain high tear resistance.
Though there was a great deal of interest in applications of kites, no substantial design changes were made during the eighteenth century. During the next century, however, kites aroused the curiosity and stirred the creativity of many people.
Meteorologists are among the most avid kitefliers because of the observations that can be made by attaching cameras and other instruments to kites. Another group working with kites sought to make kite flying annesessary for observation of the clouds; they wanted to fly. Some of these precursors of flying machines had other objectives. Experimenters would often want to see how high they could fly kites. Others wanted to see how much weight kites could lift. A Frenchman, Maillot, designed a man-lifter in 1885.
Nine years later B. F. S. Baden-Powell developed the tandem system in which several smaller kites (each 110 square feet in area) were attached and flown in train for great lifting power. His original goal was to provide the army with a readily available observation post. At nearly the same time, but independently of Baden-Powell, Lawrence Hargrave built a successful man-lifting kite with a train of four cellular kites Hargrave's cellular forms were later capitalized on by Jimmy Wise, who claimed several successful ascents over New York in 1932.

Of some contemporary interest to those interested in pollution-free vehicles is the Charvolant designed by one George Pocock in the 1820s. His special lightweight carriage was drawn not by horses but by two kites arranged in tandem so that the smaller of the two acted as the pilot or leader kite. Pocock thought that the principle could be successfully applied to other modes of transport as well, and, in fact, boats have been successfully powered with kites alone.

The most significant applications of kite experiments must, however, be recognized as the tests and design experiments which led directly to the development of the airplane.
The first form in airplane configuration employed the basic arch kite. It had a rear rudder and elevator as well and was designed by Sir George Cayley in 1804. The Cayley glider also employed a dihedral angle, which anticipated the Eddy kite and others of modern design. It seems reasonable to suggest that if a suitable power source had been available to Cayley, the airplane might have been invented one hundred years earlier than it was.
To be sure, the Wright brothers pursued the most systematic search for a means of allowing men to fly, and kites played an important part in their initial researches. They experimented with changes in the positioning of lifting surfaces-toward which end they developed and flew a special warping kite, the planes of which could be controlled and changed to determine the effect of different configurations upon flight.
Two other individuals became intensely involved in the design of kites as well: Lawrence Hargrave and Alexander Graham Bell. The Hargrave box kite provided the basis for many subsequent designs, and his work suggested plane designs for powered flight to many others involved in this research.
By far the most fantastic kite designs are those by Bell. He began with the Hargrave box kite which he referred to as bathe high-water mark of progress [in kite design] in the nineteenth century." One of Bell's intense concerns was stability, and within the constraints of maximum rigidity, lifting power, and minimal weight, his results are striking.

The advance in kite design for which Bell is most famous, though, is the introduction of the regular tetrahedron as an element of kite construction. Not only is this structure a very rigid one which does not require any external bracings, but any number of cells can be connected without changing the surface-to-weight ratio-meaning that the kites could be made very, very large indeed. Some of his designs had as many as four thousand cells.
That the popularity of kitefiying and kite designing decreased noticeably with the advent of the airplane is not surprising. The kite flourished in quite a different era from that of its flying relatives which now move faster than sound. Recently, however, the sport of kitefiying has enjoyed a noticeable renaissance in the West. Part of this undoubtedly stems from a resurgence in interest in the out-of-doors and in craftsmanship, but some modern kite designers have been filing and building kites for many years.
Of the more recent innovations in kite design is the Flexi-kite or parawing designed by Dr. Francis Rogallo. This cloth kite is entirely flexible and is given form by a multi-leg bridle system. Rogallo originally designed this wing to act as a glider/ parachute. It is, in fact, used for both purposes today-most popularly in the sport of hang gliding with the addition of rigid members, this kite has been adapted to water skiing where the skier, with the kite scrapped to his back, is lifted into the air from the water as he is pulled along by a boat.
Another invention is the Scott sled kite. Supported only by two vertical reinforcements, the sled tills very well in most winds. It is constructed in vented and invented formations. One of the most interesting new inventions with practical uses is the Jalbert paraffin. Designed by Domino Jabbers to provide great lift and to stand up to very strong winds, this entirely flexible kite is something of a revolution in kite design. Discussed later in this book, the paraffin was the result of necessity. A western university, in need of a kite which would lift instruments in 100 mph winds, made their problem known, and Jabbers responded with a magnificent solution.

Quite apart from the technical aspects of kite flight, artists have found the kite an exciting sculptural form. Fumio Yoshimura designs fanciful kites in bamboo-as sculptures rather than as flying objects. Charles Henry works with fiber glass rod and synthetic fabrics. Jackie Monnier paints fantastically long kite tails. Tat Streeter finds inspiration in traditional Japanese kitemaking materials. Their work also extends the range and standards of kite design by creating aesthetically appealing forms. The kite is more than a simple machine, and kitemaking can be more than craft: it can be an art.

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