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The History of Kite Flying

Updated on April 24, 2009

Kites originated in China in the remote past, probably before 1000 B.C., and they are widely flown in the East and the Pacific. In Europe, though the Greeks and Romans had something of the kind, and though dragon-shaped kites appear to have been known and flown in the fifteenth century, it seems that they were only popularized in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by direct Chinese influence by way of Holland, when East and West came into a closer relationship.

In England, kites were pictured in John Bate's Mysteries of Art and Nature in 1635. Their English name (not found in print until the seventeenth century) they owe to the kite, with its peculiar forked tail and soaring flight, which was one of the most familiar of British birds, although now almost extinct. The Italians call them aquiloni (large eagles) and in Germany the kite is drachen, or 'dragon'. The kite indeed has been made in many forms - from bird shapes and dragon shapes, elaborately painted and articulated, to the simplest lozenge or triangle. In the East the kite has been more than a toy of elegance and fascination. It was in demand for magical purposes, to fend off evil spirits. Flutes and whistles and reeds were attached to make sound kites or musical kites; a Chinese general of the Han dynasty (202 B.C.- A.D. 220) is said to have flown such kites above his enemies in the darkness. They believed their guardian angels were warning them of danger, and fled. Evil has been transferred to kites, which were then released, by the Koreans and others; and in Siam kites were flown in a yearly festival to call up the right northerly wind which would clear the skies and the weather and dry the ground to make it ready for sowing.

In Europe kite-flying continued to be no more than a game until the eighteenth century, when kites were first employed in meteorology. In 1749 Alexander Wilson and Thomas Melville used the kite to lift thermometers into the air. Three years later, in 1752, Benjamin Franklin made famous use of the kite in his investigations of lightning and electricity. In 1804 the kite took on a more important role: as a simple form of aeroplane in which the surface is inclined to the wind and sustained against the pull of the string, it helped to solve the problems of flight. Sir George Cayley (1773-1857), the aeroplane pioneer, realized its aeronautical nature and constructed the first successful model glider by fixing a kite to one end of a pole, and a tail-plane and fin to the other. Thus the Chinese magical dragon and toy may be called the first true ancestor of the aeroplane.

Kites and aeroplanes have still another link. In Australia in 1893 the scientist Lawrence Hargrave invented the biplane box-kite, a highly stable type which led to an even greater use for kites both as toy and scientific instrument. The box-kite and the biplane glider built by the Wright brothers, combined to dictate the form of the earliest European aeroplanes between 1905 and 1908.

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