Pick from the Past
Natural History, April 1957

Go Fly a Kite

Though people joke about it as a toy, the kite has
carried men aloft physically as well as spiritually
and helped pave the way to mastery of the air.


A Solomon Islander with his fishing kite

A Solomon Islander with his fishing kite and the gar it has just caught. Spider web is usually used in place of a hook.

Photo: Pitt-Rivers Museum

ONE summer morning in the year 1900, on the wind-swept dunes of North Carolina's Atlantic coast, two men intently studied the motions of a kite, which they were controlling by means of four slender wires. These men were Wilbur and Orville Wright, and they were learning some of the techniques that were later to be applied to the first heavier-than-air vehicle to carry a man aloft under its own power.

Perhaps earlier that same morning on another shore halfway around the world, an anxious South Sea fisherman was watching a somewhat different kite and waiting for it to tell him that a fish had taken the lure hanging from its tail.

These are but two examples of the many ways in which kites have helped men in their quest for knowledge and their struggle for survival since ancient times. Even though the kite is generally considered to be only a toy, it has provided men with a wealth of knowledge.

It is believed that the kite was invented in the Malay Archipelago. From that area comes the familiar Malay kite, formed in the shape of a diamond so that it requires no tail but balances itself in the air. The Maoris of New Zealand have flown kites since before recorded history, and the kite is firmly embedded in their lore. Today, they often fly kites to the accompaniment of ceremonial chants.

The triangular fishing kite that is used around Bougainville is usually made from five leaves of the sago palm. A line is attached to the lower edge to support a lure that dangles in the water. This lure is itself unique, for it employs no hook. It is merely a sticky wad of spider web gathered from the jungles on a forked stick. If an unsuspecting fish takes this lump in its mouth, its teeth become so entangled that it cannot escape. The fisherman then reels in the kite and removes the fish. The spider web can be used again and again. However, the natives believe this astonishing equipment is not alone sufficient to catch the fish. A magical injunction, “Seo, nikiniko botot me vavatoa,” is used to urge the fish to catch hold of the line and shake the kite.

Records of kites are found very early in Chinese history, and it is prophetic that they were first used in warfare, specifically in military signaling. When messages had to be sent over dangerous country, brilliantly colored kites were flown high enough to be seen. The Chinese general Han Sin used the kite as early as 200 B.C., when he was tunneling beneath the walls of his target—the Wei-Yang palace.

From Korea, too, come the tales of kites in war. Once, on the eve of a particularly critical battle, a Korean general attached a lantern to the tail of a kite and raised it into the air at night. His soldiers, believing this light to be a token of divine assistance, took new strength and courage. A later Korean general, when barred by a river across his route, flew a string to some people on the opposite bank, and thus drew across the ropes for a bridge.

Our earliest record of the kite as a man-lifting affair comes from ancient Japan. Two golden images of fish high atop the castle of Nagoya-Gyo are said to have motivated this feat. The golden fish attracted the greed of a bandit named Ishikawa Goyemon, but the baron who occupied the castle 400 years ago kept it heavily guarded. The bandit seated himself in a trapeze attached to the tail of a huge kite. In the dead of night, his cohorts maneuvered him into the air, and he flew to the rooftop. Once there, he stole many of the golden scales from the ornaments, then descended and escaped undetected.

Another legend from Japan is about two rival villages that had long competed in an annual contest to determine which excelled in the art of building and flying kites. Each year the kite-masters offered larger and more elaborate entries, but finally it turned into a personal battle between the two leading kite-masters. A meeting was arranged one evening to settle the issue once and for all. What had started as a friendly contest of the winds became a war of words, as the two wizards of kite-craft huddled with their supporters around a small Japanese stove called a hibachi—a porcelain urn filled with ashes and a few burning sticks of charcoal. When it seemed that no conclusion could be reached, one of the kite-masters produced a tiny kite about the size of a postage stamp and unreeled a gossamer line like a spider web. By using only the meager heat from the charcoal stove, he flew and controlled his doll-sized kite so well that he won the honors.

Pocock's "Charvolant"

In 1827, George Pocock traveled about England in his Kite-Carriage, or “Charvolant.”

Image: A. Stanford

First Scientific Uses

The use of the kite as a tool gradually spread from the Far East to the western world, and others soon took advantage of this opportunity to reach into the heavens. Among the first to use the kite scientifically were Dr. Alexander Wilson and Thomas Melville of the University of Glasgow in Scotland. In 1749, they hoisted thermometers aloft on six kites, with fuses attached to each kite so that the instruments could be dropped from different altitudes. They were the first persons to record temperatures above the surface of the earth.

Three years later in the United States, Dr. Benjamin Franklin made his epic experiment. Constructing a small kite from a silken handkerchief and using a thin wire for a line, he flew it into the fury of a thunderstorm. The wire allowed a discharge from the clouds to flash down and spark to the earth through a key suspended at the end of the line, thus proving that lightning is a form of electricity.

The kite, not the gasoline engine, also made possible the world's first horseless carriage. The Englishman George Pocock in 1827 developed a four-wheeled buggy which was towed along by two kites with lines about 1,500 to 1,800 feet long. These kites were similar to the Malay kites but had circular tops. The Kite-Carriage, or “Charvolant,” made many trips between Bristol and Marlborough at speeds as high as 20 miles an hour. It once sped past the London mail coach. A group of three Kite-Carriages, each carrying several passengers, made a 113-mile trip.

Before inventing the “Charvolant,” Pocock designed man-lifting kites and once used them as a means of gaining the top of a steep cliff 200 feet high. Pocock also proposed that kites be used to tow vessels and to carry life lines to wrecked ships.

The idea of using a kite to haul a line to an inaccessible spot was put to practical use in the United States in 1849. A group of engineers were considering methods to span the Niagara River with a bridge just below the famous falls. One of them, T. G. Hulet, offered a prize of ten dollars to the first boy who could fly a kite with a stout string across the rocky, ice-choked river. After several unsuccessful attempts, a lad named Homan Walsh won the money. This string formed the beginning of a bridge that linked the United States and Canada.

Man-lifting kite designed by Captain B. F. S. Baden-Powell

Man-lifting kites came into vogue toward the end of the last century. This rig was designed by Captain B. F. S. Baden-Powell, who on one occasion rose to a height of 100 feet.

Photo: Royal Aeronautical Society

Riding up with Kites

About 50 years after Pocock's experiments, man-lifting kites began to appear all over the world. Lawrence Hargrave was among the first to begin working in earnest. He made many attempts at flight, mostly with the birdlike, flapping-wing ornithopters, and he is credited with inventing the box kite in 1885. But it was in 1893 that he built three large kites and attached them at intervals to a long line. The combined weight of his body and this rig came to 208 pounds, but he managed to raise himself 16 feet above the ground. At that point, he decided that he was quite high enough and returned safely to the earth.

Other man-carrying kites were being flown in England. At Pirbright camp in 1894, Captain B. F. S. Baden-Powell of the Scots Guards constructed a huge kite 36 feet tall, and it got him off the ground. But later that year, with five smaller kites only 12 feet high, he raised his 150-pound body to an altitude of 100 feet. Baden-Powell's kites were also put to use in transferring mail from the destroyer Daring to another ship.

In the Boer War in South Africa, English soldiers were hoisted aloft in kites to spy on the enemy. Also in England, Colonel S. F. Cody, the first man to fly an airplane in the British Isles, experimented with man-lifting kites. His results eclipsed previous efforts, for in 1905 a kite of his design lifted a man to—hold your seats—an altitude of 1,600 feet! Colonel Cody also made flights in an untethered kite powered by a 12-horsepower engine.

Samuel F. Perkins flying a group of man-carrying kites

Samuel F. Perkins flying a group of man-carrying kites.

Photo: Culver Service
In the United States, where actual flight was soon to be realized, men were also flying huge kites. One Lieutenant Wise, using a series of four Hargrave-type kites, lifted 229 pounds, including a man, over 40 feet into the air. In the same year, manless kites were also reaching higher and higher into American skies. W. A. Eddy made up a train of nine Malay kites attached to a cord two miles long. The top kite of this fantastic rig soared to an alti-tude of 5,595 feet and remained aloft for 15 hours.

Men had floated aloft in balloons, glided on fabric wings, and risen on kites. All that remained was to sever the slender string that bound them to the earth. For this, the world looked to the Wrights.


The Kite and the Airplane

As children, the Wright brothers were avid kitefliers. Later, their interest in flying led them to read the accounts of the aeronauts of their time, and they pondered over methods of flying and controlling a vehicle in the air. A clue came to Wilbur while selling a tire tube to a customer in the small bicycle shop the Wrights owned. As he absently twisted the carton in which the tube came, he noticed its similarity to a box kite. He reasoned that if the box could be twisted, so might the kite, and in this manner some control might be exercised over it in flight.

The Wright's tethered glider at Kitty Hawk

The Wrights' tethered glider at Kitty Hawk, October 1900. For lack of suitable winds, it was flown unmanned. Balancing was controlled from the ground by cords.

Photo: Brown Brothers
Within a month, the brothers had built a kite with wings five feet long. It was equipped with four lines, by means of which they were able to warp it in the air. This device was flown in Dayton. The next year they flew a larger tethered glider at Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. These tests, made in the year 1900, were witnessed by the famous aeronaut Octave Chanute, who gave the Wrights much encouragement. Their epic flight some three years later was possible mainly because they had succeeded in controlling the aircraft in the air, a feat not previously mastered.

During this critical period in aviation, kites all over the world were contributing to the storehouse of knowledge that is the necessary foundation of any new science. A Lieutenant Bassel of the French army gained great skill with man-lifting kites, and C. H. Lamson invented and developed a kite shaped like the early bi-planes of that time. In Germany, Perseval combined the balloon and the kite and evolved an efficient “kite-balloon,” while in Russia, as early as 1898, kites were used in army maneuvers.

In the United States, kites were making spectacular flights around the turn of the century. In October, 1901, Almenia Rice, a circus tight-wire and trapeze artist, flew for several minutes with a kite from the roof of a building at 144 Tremont St., Boston, and landed safely. Another American, Dr. Charles Zimmerman of Maryland, built a large kite in 1902 and got his wife Ida about ten feet off the ground.

Of course, all kites flown during this period did not carry people but some made contributions of far-reaching consequence. For instance, on December 12, 1901, Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless telegraph, hoisted a wire attached to a kite at St. John's, Newfoundland, and with this antenna received the first wireless signal to be sent across the Atlantic Ocean.

One of Alexander Graham Bell's huge kites

One of Alexander Graham Bell's huge kites.

Photo: Brown Brothers
Even after the Wrights flew their powered airplane in 1903, the man-lifting kite was still the subject of much research. In 1907, the renowned Dr. Alexander Graham Bell conducted experiments with a mammoth man-lifting kite at his summer home in Nova Scotia. Even by today's standards, this was a flying machine of immense proportions. One of Bell's kites had a span of well over 50 feet and stood over 12 feet high. The kite consisted of a multitude of tiny triangular wings, each about ten inches on a side. These little triangles were arranged as the sides of regular pyramidal shapes, and Bell therefore called the entire assemblage a “Tetrahedral” kite. All in all, there were over 12,000 miniature triangular wings in the entire kite. Bell often flew this giant kite over the beautiful waters of the Bras d'Or Lake in Cape Breton Island. He and his helpers gained such a mastery of the kite that the famous aviator Glenn Curtiss came to investigate the possibilities of installing an engine in it.

The most notable flight of this tremendous kite took place on December 6, 1907, when Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge of the U.S. Army was carried aloft to a height of about 150 feet and remained up for 7 minutes. A grim shadow lay over this flight, however, for shortly afterward, Selfridge was making a demonstration flight in one of the Wright airplanes and the ship's propeller caught in a loose wire, causing the plane to plunge to the earth. Selfridge was killed, the first man to die in an airplane crash.


As a Photographic Vehicle

Besides carrying men aloft, kites were enabling men to look at the earth through the eyes of cameras. Though sober-minded citizens joked about these experiments, one of them brought sudden wealth. In the early 1880s, E. D. Archibald of England and A. Batut of France had taken many pictures from cameras mounted on kites. But in 1906, George R. Lawrence took one of the world's largest pictures from a kite. Immediately after the San Francisco earthquake, he grouped seventeen huge kites to form a train to lift a camera that was longer than some automobiles. It took fifteen men to handle it on the ground. The picture it made measured about 30 square feet. With this camera, Lawrence took a giant-sized picture of the San Francisco earthquake and fire. Prints from this photo earned him a fortune of almost $15,000.

Perhaps it is because kiteflying allows a fulfillment of man's in-born desire to fly that it is a universally popular sport with both young and old. The Chinese in particular, who first used the kite in warfare, have developed it as a toy. They make kites in the form of animals, kites shaped like fish and birds, and of course kites like dragons. The dragon kites are actually many small kites attached to the same string. The first in line is the head, then several form the body and tail of the monster. The Chinese even have a special Kite Day—the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month.

Japanese boy with his traditional "Yakko"

A Japanese boy with his traditional “Yakko,” or Sentinel Kite.

Photo: Jurio Tsoohiza
In Japan, kiteflying is especially popular during New Year's celebrations. The kites are usually square and are marked with symbolic characters. A favorite figure is the “Daluko”—patterned after a roly-poly toy weighted so that it always returns to an upright position. The picture of the “Daluko” on the kite is a sort of good-luck symbol; its use is traditional, and it is supposed to be an image of the god Buddha. Another interesting Japanese kite is shaped like a man and named “Yakko,” after the sentinel who preceded the local baron or “Daimio” when he went on excursions through the countryside. The “Yakko” went out ahead of the column to see that the people were properly prepared to greet the lord as he passed by. Besides these shapes and markings, many of the square kites are decorated with the Japanese symbols of good luck.

The square Japanese kite is also flown in Korea, but a more popular type is the diamond-shaped Malay kite. These kites are equipped with a cloth tail and are called Yunn. This type is likewise flown in the Philippine Islands, along with Chinese kites. In the Philippines, the flying of kites serves a unique practical purpose. A great number of water buffalo are used in this area and are vital to the economy of the people. When the buffaloes are grazing in the open fields, they require an attentive and alert herdsman to prevent them from straying. They also begin fighting if left untended for long periods. So, the herdsmen need some preoccupation that will keep them awake but not tire them excessively. Kiteflying serves the purpose, and throughout the fields you will see many bright dots in the sky where the well-chaperoned buffaloes are calmly grazing.

Kites are popular also in the Middle East. In Lebanon, for instance, two kinds of kites are generally flown. The more elaborate ones are usually made of bamboo and paper in the form of a regular hexagon, with a conventional cloth tail. The lower three sides are decorated with a paper fringe “ . . . to make them fly better . . ” This kite is called a tayara kasab, literally “airplane of bamboo.” An older kite in Lebanon is the koubh, which is folded from a single sheet of paper and rigged so that it needs no sticks at all. This kite uses a tail made by tearing a sheet of paper in a continuous spiral.

Kiteflying is widespread in Europe. Germany has kites in the form of butterflies, birds, and bats, but the two most popular kinds are the Malay kite and a regular octagonal type. Numerous forms and variations of the box kite are flown, as well as a strange kite called the Rolloplan. Aerial photographs are often made from kites, and large winged kites are sometimes used to display advertising.

Pitting one kite against another is a popular sport in many countries. The object is usually to see which kiteflier can cut the cord of his opponent's kite. Here in the United States, sharp pieces of glass or razor blades are attached to the kites themselves. These fighting kites are highly maneuverable, and a practiced operator can cause them to dart all over the sky. To hit and cut an opponent's rapidly moving string with a swift kite requires considerable skill.

In China, a slightly different technique is employed. Instead of attaching sharp objects to the kite, the kite string itself does the cutting. The part of the string near the kite is coated with glue and finely crushed glass. In battle, the strings of the two kites are sawed together until one kite is cut loose. In Iraq, a unique glue is often used to bond the glass chips to the kite string. The thick sticky juice from the okra plant is dried to a gummy consistency and then combined with the crushed glass. This mixture, when applied to the kite string and allowed to harden, holds the glass chips firmly and also affords protection to the string. However, kiteflying is discouraged by some parents in Iraq, for rooftops are a favorite place, and each year, many children, absorbed in raising their kites, fall off backward and are hurt. Kiteflying and kite-fighting, nevertheless, still flourish in Iraq.

Not all kite-flights end with one kite floating away on the wind. In Thailand, two different types of kites, a male and a female, oppose each other. The object is for each contestant to try to bring his opponent down within a certain boundary. The male kite, or Chula, is shaped like a five-pointed star and is generally about six feet tall. Several boys are needed to fly it. The male is not equipped with a tail but has a group of bamboo hooks attached to the string some distance down from the kite.

The female kite, or Pakpao, is diamond-shaped and much smaller than the male, only about one-sixth its area. It has a long tail of well-starched cloth and is provided with a long loop of string, running from the kite to the kite string. In combat, the male tries to catch the female with his hooks and pull her down by brute force. The female must employ a more subtle strategy. Since she is much smaller and can't overpower the male, she must try to upset him by casting her loop over one of more of his five arms. If the female is able to overturn the male in this manner, he falls to the ground and loses.

Inevitably, there is much betting on the outcome, but since the male has the advantage of greater size and strength, its backers must give odds of six to one. The Thai Traditional Sports Association has plans to promote and perpetuate kite-fighting, and every year at the beginning of March a contest is held at the Pramane Grounds by the Grand Palace at Bangkok.

Lifting the antenna of a "Gibson Girl" transmitter with a box kite

Lifting the antenna of a “Gibson Girl” transmitter with a box kite: an application that gives radio signals better range and increases chances of rescue.

Photo: US Marine Corps
With all its unusual shapes and forms and with its strange and varied past, the kite is often thought of today as an oddity or at best an interesting toy. Actually the kite still serves men in many useful ways. The U.S. Weather Bureau has made extensive use of the kite as a tool to probe the whims of the weather. From 1893 until 1933, the Weather Bureau maintained a system of stations from which kites were flown at regular hours when the winds permitted. At one of these stations on Mt. Weather, Va., on May 5, 1910, a string of ten kites carrying meteorological instruments was launched. The total area of this “train” of ten kites amounted to 683 square feet, and the uppermost kite rose to an altitude of 23,835 feet. In order to accomplish this feat, over 8-1/2 miles of thin wire were needed for the line.

Also in other countries, the kite has proved useful for exploring the atmosphere. In Viborg at the extreme northern tip of Denmark, a permanent station for the flying of kites was established through the cooperation of Denmark, Sweden, and France. Among the many buildings was a 33-foot tower, with one side open so the kites could be tended. The whole affair rotated on a circular track so that the open side could be turned away from the wind, and electric winches were provided to raise and lower the kites.

The Germans built a kite station at Grossborstel and have flown kites at the Aeronautical Observatory of Lindenberg. One German, Valentin Oesterle, has specialized in making various types of kites to serve many purposes, such as photography, advertising, sport, and meteorological work. Most of these kites are in the form of old airplanes, with from one to four wings.

Commander Paul Garber

Commander Paul Garber showing how his maneuverable kite is used to train aerial gunners.

Photo: Smithsonian Institution
The United States Merchant Marine, fulfilling the predictions of the Englishman George Pocock, has used kites to fly life lines to stranded vessels. The United States Navy has also flown kites. In World War II, a plan was suggested for flying kites over ships to protect them from enemy aircraft. The kites, darting back and forth on the shifting winds, supported steel wires which would form an effective aerial umbrella over the ships. Although never used in combat, the plan was successfully tested at sea.

Many a downed American aviator owes his life to a kite. As part of the standard survival equipment in many airplanes, a small collapsible box kite enables the castaway to carry his radio antenna high enough to summon help. The German submarines often used a sort of “helicopter-kite” for carrying an observer aloft. These observation devices were known as “Sandpipers” and often had lines as long as 500 feet. They actually have rotor blades similar to an autogyro, which rotate and provide the necessary lift. They are now being sold by one of the helicopter companies.

Perhaps the most extraordinary kite of modern times was designed and built by Paul Garber, Head Curator of the National Air Museum. Constructed so as to be completely controllable, it was used by this country's armed forces to train aerial gunners to follow darting enemy aircraft. Garber's remarkable kite was so maneuverable that he could sign his name in the air with it, so perhaps we now have a kite to end all kites.

Joseph J. Cornish III is an aerodynamicist in the Aerophysics Department of Mississippi State College, where he received his M.S. in Aeronautical Engineering. A former aerial navigator in the Marines, he is at present engaged in research for the Air Branch of the Office of Naval Research. He has published technical and popular articles, and his hobby is the study of natural flight and man's early attempts to fly.

Return to Web Site Archive, Picks from the Past