The Soaring History of Kites
The Kite Fights
There was a boy who lived in the street next to us where I grew up and he was a kite flyer. He was a good flyer and he participated in kite fights. He handmade his own kites and I used to go and watch him. He would use thin bamboo sticks for the spars and used silk or thin paper for the material. His kites were usually brightly coloured and had dramatic tail designs.
It was what he did to the twine that was fascinating – he would use an odd and smelly mixture of resin, glue and crushed glass called ‘Maanjaa’ and apply them throughout the length of the twine. This way when he is up in the air and he duels with another kite, his twine will prevail by cutting the enemies loose. I loved this idea of the duel in the sky and as most houses in India have flat roofs with terraces, we would all go up to the terrace and watch the kite fights in the evening sky.
The winners would dance triumphantly in the updraft, wagging their tails and strutting while the losers helplessly drifted in the wind, disappearing into the distant sky as tiny diamond silhouettes.
I’ll never forget those evenings.
It was this that made me think of where Kites really come from and who first had this thought of sending these tethered aircraft into the air and controlling them from the Ground.
The History of Kites
That honour goes to the Chinese. They have a long and ancient history of Kite flying going back nearly 3000 years of history. The Chinese were master kite makers, they used silk and bamboo to craft kites in various shapes and forms and flew them to the delight of children and adults. They experimented with shapes, coming up with box kites and even floating Chinese lanterns that were sometimes tethered. They used mythological figures on their kite fabric and revered kite flying as an art form and revered religion.
The Chinese didn’t just use the Kites for gaming and pleasure; they conducted experiments, measured distances and wind speed, spied on enemies, and even attempted to deliver armed men in large kites to scare the enemies during warfare.
From the Chinese travellers who visited ancient India, the Kite soon travelled to India and the long tradition of paper kite flying is still maintained to this day in India.
Around the World
The Kite spread to Malaysia and Japan and soon trickled into Europe via the voyages of Marco Polo. The sailors brought back this curiosity to Europe and tried to fly it with varying success. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th century that kites, quite literally, took off in Europe as a way of recreation but also scientific experimentation.
The apocryphal story of Ben Franklin’s kite experiment is from 1750 in his attempts to prove that lightning was indeed, electric charge. The European experimentation with lightning and kites was demonstrated in 1752 by Thomas Francois Dalibard.
Soon Kites 'soared' as recreational objects across the countries, along the beaches in summer, giving pleasure to children and adults everywhere. Once the further uses of Kites became apparent they have enjoyed a renaissance as sports enthusiasts took them and made them their own.
The Kite flying festivals across the world now illustrate the widespread adoption of Kite flying and the enthusiastic kite flyers that flock to them in thousands.
International Kite Festivals
Coolum Kite Festival, Queensland
During Mahr Sankranti ( Sun festival) in Ahmedabad and all over the country. ( Patang)
During Republic Day and other national festivals
Jashn-e-bahaaran ( spring festival)
Weifang ( oldest Kite Museum) Kite Festival
Clean Monday ( First day of Lent)
Dieppe Kite Festival ( 2 yearly)
Bristol Kite Festival
Niagara Kite Festival
The Structure of a Kite
Paper and Silk were the mainstay for the kite fabric and bamboo and other flexible wood were used as spars. Increasingly modern materials such as nylon, Dacron and polystyrene have taken over as suitable material for kites.
The kites can come in simple two dimensional of three dimensional shapes. Nowadays it seems only the imagination is the limit as competing kite-flyers defy aerodynamics to fly bizarre shapes into the sky.
A combination of a kite and a balloon is also known as a kytoon. This is usually a closed shape filled with some gas such as helium or hydrogen.
A standard Kite has the following parts:
A Spine: that runs from top to bottom vertically- flexible wood, bamboo etc.
A Spar: that runs across - flexible wood, bamboo
A Frame : That runs around the margins- some kites just use the spar/spine as frame and rely on the material to give the framework
A Bridle: this is how the flying line is attached to the Kite with a view ot provide a balanced tethering
A Flying Line and a reel: usually made of thread or twine and sometimes nylon or silk threads
How do Kites Fly?
Kites fly relying on the same principle that work for birds and planes. The laws of aerodynamics have been the preoccupation of man since his dream to fly like a bird. The ancient legend of Icarus and Daedalus demonstrates that the desire to fly using winglike contraptions stemmed from ancient times. Polymaths like Da Vinci & Newton both contemplated flights and Da Vinci’s diagrams of ornithopters and primeval helicopters represent the early scientific principles of thrust, drag, wind resistance etc.
The science of Kite flying is fascinating. When the Kite confronts an airflow it splits the oncoming airstream into two by creating an obstacle. The airstream flows over and under the Kite differentially. While the stream over the kite flows faster and one under flows slower. The pressure created by the air varies based on its speed. Thus the Kite is pushed higher creating the LIFT.
The two streams that vault over the Kite also don’t meet right away due to differential speeds creating what is called the DRAG as the Kite is dragged back into an area of low pressure in its wake. Lift and Drag are vital to the Kite’s flight and should be directly countered by the Pull exhibited by the tow line thus making the Kite fly with stability in a calm sky.
Kites and their Uses
I am pretty astounded to see the sheer variety of uses Kites have provided since their inception. Even in ancient times the Chinese had adapted the Kites for uses beyond the recreational. There are recorded attempts in Military warfare, Distance Measurement, Meteorology, Leisure, Communication and Transportation.
During wars as far back as 600 AD in the far east, Kites have been sued to strike fear in the hearts of enemies. A Korean General has been known to lift a burning straw man into the sky with a kite creating a burning ball of fire and rallying his troops. Their have been instances where Kites have hoisted human like figures to make the enemy think they were being invaded by air.
In the World Wars Kites have been used to hoist lookouts, radio antennae, signal to the troops using lights and even to hoist a human lookout. Using principles of paragliding, human soldiers have been hoisted off the ground to case the enemy.
Since Benjamin Franklin’s lightning experiments Kites have been used to test scientific principles, they were of use to test the atmosphere at a height and for meteorological analysis.
Radio and Communications
Although Balloons and Kytoons are in favour for hoisting UHF antenna and radio transmission, Kites were originally tried by the likes of Marconi and Graham Bell.
Traction and Sports
Large Kites have been used to create a lateral force on the ground and to move humans and objects. Over the past few years, Kite-surfing, Kite –buggying and Kite- snowboarding have become popular for extreme sport enthusiasts.
Hoisting humans & Cargo
Kites can be tethered to Boats moving at high speed to hoist up humans for leisure and also to give the initial boost for para-gliding.
Transport/ Assisting Ships
A German company has been working on huge kites to assist the movement of yachts and baots on the sea and harnessing the wind energy to assist speed and conserving energy. It has proven that Skysails can save up to 30% fuel in used in shipping. This obviously depends of the atmospheric conditions and wind speed/direction.
There are experiments to enhance energy production using Kites at high altitude. The high speed, high altitude wind energy can be used to generate electricity and prototype Kites are being built.
But as always, above all else Kites have been giving pure pleasure to children and adults as could be seen by the various Kite festivals around the world.
Have you ever flown a Kite?
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'Lets go fly a kite' from Mary Poppins!
© 2011 Mohan Kumar