Kites have been around for at least 2000 years, but their exact origin is still disputed. This is because kites back then were made from lightweight materials such as silk, bamboo, or rice paper. These materials disintegrated or broke down easily, which meant little to no physical evidence of how long ago they were used.
As such, we have to rely on written records throughout history to give us an idea of when, where, and how kites were first used. In this article, we will explore where the earliest known records of kites were found, and how kites have evolved over the years.
Kites In Asia
It is widely believed that the kite originated in China, but did you know that kites were also popular in other parts of Asia? Read on to find out more.
Originally known as Mo Di, Mozi (also spelled as Mo-tzu, Mo-tze, or Mo-tse) was a famous Chinese philosopher and public figure in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 BC – 221 BC). He spent 3 years crafting and carving a wooden bird, to which a string was attached. While it is very different from the kites that we know today, in most circles, it is considered to be the earliest kite in existence.
Kites appeared and were formally named during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD – 220 AD) with the invention of paper by Cai Lun. The traditional paper kites included bamboo flutes that made sounds, and the Chinese named the paper kite fengzheng. In Mandarin, feng means wind and zheng refers to a traditional Chinese musical instrument.
In China, kites were originally used by the military to measure distance and wind direction. Kites were also used to send messages. In the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), General Han Xin used kites to measure the distance of the tunnel under the Weiyang Palace, which is northeast of downtown Xi An today.
Kites were used for entertainment during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906). Kite-flying was treated as a form of exercise, and it became a custom to fly kites during the Festival of Pure Brightness in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279).
Rest Of Asia And Other Continents
The kite was then introduced to the rest of Asia, along with India, Arabia, and North Africa, mostly because of how travel was opened up over land and sea. Kites also were introduced to people in the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia, and as far as Easter Island. It is also believed that kites could have been invented independently in Malaya and South Asia as kites made from leaves have been recorded to be flown in those regions.
Kites became part of religious ceremonies in Japan, and were thought to ward against unseen evils, or to bring good fortune for harvests. Kites were also thought to be a way to communicate with the gods.
During the Edo era, kites were a luxury form of amusement in Japan. Kites were thought to make people lazy, which led to kite flying to become a sole privilege for the Samurai class.
Around 1500 AD, kites became popular in India. There is a popular myth that a boy loved a girl who was forbiden to see him and kept in isolation. To communicate with the girl he loved, he sent her love letters by attaching them to kites.
In Korea (and a few other Asian countries), if you see a shooting star, it means misfortune or bad luck is coming. In 600 AD, there was a rebellion in Korea. Soldiers were ordered to crush the rebellion, but they heard of a large fallen star. General Gim Yu-sin (Kim Yu-sin) attached a burning scarecrow to a kite, and then launched it so that the star would look as it it was floating back to heaven, removing the fear of misfortune. This led to a Korean custom called Yeonnalligi, which is typically performed or done during the Korean New Year Seollal. Korean words “송액영복(送厄迎福)” meaning “to send off the bad luck, and welcome good fortune” are written on kites, and then flown. At sunset, the kite line is cut, allowing the kite to float away in symbolism of letting go of any bad luck from the previous year, and welcoming good luck and fortune for the new year.
As time passed and people realized the potential of kites, the fighter kite was a design that quickly became popular throughout Asia. Popular designs included the Rokaku from Japan, and the Tukkal from India. These kites were typically flown without tails, allowing them to be highly maneuverable. The kite lines were often coated in abrasive materials like powdered glass. In kite fighting, these agile kites and abrasive lines were used to cut down opponents’ lines till there was only 1 kite left in the sky.
Marco Polo Introduces Kites To Europe
In 1282, the famous Venetian merchant Marco Polo supposedly saw a kite being flown with a man tied to it in the city of Weifang. According to the records in his travel diary, there existed a tradition at the time for testing the wind with a kite to determine if an upcoming voyage would be successful or not. A sailor would be bound to a large kite on a ship as it “rode with the wind”, and the kite and sailor would be cast off the ship into the breeze. If the kite and its passenger flew high and straight, it was a sign that the voyage would be successful.
Marco Polo brought a Chinese kite back to Italy with him. Thanks to the Silk Road, the Chinese kite became popular throughout Europe. Later on, the kite would travel to what was known as the New Lands – the Americas.
Kites In Europe And In The Americas
Kite flying spread quickly throughout Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Sailors were also exposed to this mesmerizing hobby during expeditions to the East, and brought back kites from Japan and Malaysia in the 16th and 17th centuries. For many years, kites were regarded as curiosities, or children’s toys, and had little impact on European culture. This would soon change as kites were used as an aid in science experiments.
Alexander Wilson, a meteorologist, was the first to use kites to measure air temperature at various levels above the ground simultaneously with a train of kites with thermometers attached to them. George Cayley, who is considered one of the most important people in the history of aeronautics, used the kite as a model to examine the challenges of building a flying machine, or what we now know as an airplane. Kites were no longer seen as “just a child’s toy”, but were hailed as serious scientific tools, especially in meterology.
In June 1752, in what is the most famous kite experiment, the American inventor and statesman Benjamin Franklin, with the aid of his son, launched a flat silk kite fitted with a pointed wire during a thunderstorm. Both father and son avoided electrocution while a metal key attached to the kite line became electrified. With this experiement, Franklin proved that lightning was a form of electricity. Franklin then went on to invent the lightning rod.
In the 19th century, kites had multiple uses – studying weather and understanding the atmosphere, and lifting objects like cameras, thermometers, and even people. Kites would also be used to simulate moving targets in the air to train aircraft gunners in both World Wars. They were also used for signaling and lifting emergency radio antennae to better receive radio signals.
Around 1900, Orville and Wilbur Wright, self-taught aeronautical engineers in Ohio, began testing their biplane designs as kites. The Wright brothers were the first to focus on control, which was the missing ingredient for manned flight that had other aviation pioneers stumped.
The brothers constructed a special box kite and attached wings which were braced with wires in a way that the wings could be twisted in opposite directions to allow the box kite to bank and turn. They called the principle “wing warping,” and it was the breakthrough that allowed us to have aeroplanes today.
With the invention of the airplane, the kite fell from favour among adults. Except for occasional meteorologic survey work, which continues to the present, the kite’s status changed from a serious scientific instrument to a child’s toy once again.
After World War II, interest in kite flying was rekindled in Western countries. In 1948, Francis Rogallo, an American aeronautical engineer, is credited with invention of the Rogallo wing, which is a type of flexible wing. The Rogallo wing was the forerunner of the Delta kite and modern hang gliding.
The sled kite was invented by William Allison in the 1950s, and helped to pave the way for ‘semi-rigid’ kites. Domina Jalbert is credited as the inventor of the parafoil in the 1960s. Kite flying continued to be a popular pastime enjoyed by people of all ages over the next two decades.
In the 1980s, precisely-controlled acrobatic stunt kites became highly popular. Such kites were often designed after the ever-popular Delta kite, and can perform high-speed aerial maneuvers such as sharp turns, sudden stops in midair, flying backwards, figure-eights, and other complex acrobatics. There are 2 commonly-known types of stunt kites, one having 2 kite lines attached to the bridle, which arecalled dual-line control kites. Quad-line kites have four kite lines attached, which in turn, afforded the user more control and manuverability.
Stunt kites were also known as ‘high-performance kites’, and are made exclusively of synthetic materials. The kite spars are often made of fibreglass rods, or tubing materials such as filament-wound epoxy, graphite, wrapped graphite, or aluminum carbon. The sails of a high-performance kite could be plastic, Mylar, Tyvek, ripstop nylon, or other lightweight laminates. Kite lines for these kites are often braided Dacron (polyester) or Spectra fibre, a low-stretch synthetic yarn of great tensile strength, or a blend of both.
In the 1990s, with improvements and innovations in combined with innovations in kite aerodynamics came an emerging generation of maneuverable traction kites, also known as power kites. These kites were like ‘engines’, capable of enough pulling power (or traction, hence the name) to propel a craft or person across terrain such as water, snow, ice, or land. Pilots would maneuver the kite while simultaneously navigating a moving vehicle such as a land buggy that can reach speeds of 50 miles per hour.
Modern power kites have also changed the way people travel in the polar regions. Quadrifoils, which are soft, sparless kites, were used to haul sleds and people on self-supported treks in a 1995 Arctic expedition across Greenland, and in a 1999 expedition to the South Pole.
The history of the kite is as colorful as kites are today. Without it, humankind would not have had some amazing discoveries and inventions. What was your favourite use of a kite in history? Let us know down below in the comments!