Flying Kites Through all Seasons, Countries, and Histories
Kites and kite flying all over the world have the common denominators of history, fun, technological advancement, and now they are even going green!
Kites are soaring into spring skies all over the world and will continue to fly throughout the summer into October in some countries. All of these festivals will feature endless varieties and constructions of kites and most invite people to bring their own kites to fly.
Historians Say Countries Independently Developed Their Kite Culture
People began flying kites before they recorded history. Kite historians, when they are not flying their kites, attempt to agree on a kite timeline. They generally agree that the Chinese were the first to build and fly kites in about 1,000B.C. but they also say that many cultures independently developed the art of kite flying. English, Dutch, and Portuguese merchants were routinely making voyages to the Far East in the 16th Century and sailors learned how to construct kites and brought the knowledge home with them.
Around 1295, Marco Polo brought the concept of the kite to Europe and Europeans quickly built kites for different cultural purposes than Asians. Kites were part of military and cultural traditions in Asia, but at first, Europeans considered them children’s toys. Paintings dated around 1618 show children flying diamond shaped kites.
European Scientists Discover that Kites Can Be Used to Forecast Weather
In the 1700s, European scientists discovered that kites could be used in weather forecasting. In 1750 Benjamin Franklin proposed an experiment to prove that lightning is electricity by flying a kite in a thunder storm. He never performed his experiment but Frenchman Thomas Francois Dalibard did. On May 10, 1752, Dalibard performed Franklin’s experiment using a 40 foot, tall iron rod instead of a kite and attracted electric sparks from a cloud.
George Pocock Invents the Charvolant
English inventor and school teacher George Pocock became interested in kites at a young age and experimented with using kite power to pull loads. In 1825, George Pocock invented the “Charvolant,” a kite drawn carriage. He writes in his book, The Aeropleustic Art or Navigation in the Air by the use of Kites, or Buoyant Sails, that his Charvolant covered long distances at a speedy 20 miles an hour.
He said he could cover a mile over bad roads in 2 ¾ minutes. A group of Charvolants covered 113 miles between Bristol and Marlborough. On one trip, a Charvolant passed the Duke of Gloucester’s coach. This was such a serious breach of etiquette that the Charvolant occupants had to stop and allow the Duke to pass them.
Kiting's "Golden Age"
The “golden age of kiting” occurred between 1860 to about 1910, when scientists used kites for scientific purposes, especially in meteorology, aeronautics, wireless communications and photography. Reliable manned kites were developed as well as power kites. Innovators like Sir George Caley, Samuel Langley, Lawrence Hargrave, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Wright Brothers experimented with kites and helped develop the airplane.
Kites Are Used in Both World Wars
Before airplanes dominated the air war, British, French, Italian, and Russian armies all used kites to observe the enemy and for signaling during World War I. The German Navy continued using box kites that carried men into the air which increased the viewing range of submarines that cruised on the surface of the sea.
The United States Navy used kites during World War II to prevent airplanes from flying too low over targets. Pilots lost at sea used the Gibson-Girl Box kite to mark their position so they could be rescued. Kites were also used for target practice and aircraft recognition at sea. Barrage kites were used to protect London as well as the Pacific coast of the United States during World War II.
The technological revolution has revived kiting over the last fifty years. Kites have become stronger and more colorful and durable because of new materials like rip stop nylon, fiberglass, and carbon graphite. In 1972, Peter Powell introduced a toy dual line stunter and people began to fly kits for sport as well as fun. Kite inventors produced newly designed kites that could precision fly, speed, and perform acrobatics. Kite competitions with fliers competing to music grew in popularity.
Following in the invention footsteps of George Pocock, in the 1980s, Peter Lynn of New Zealand introduced a stainless steel kite powered buggy. By the 1990s, kite traction on wheels, water, and ice had caught on and in 1999, a team used kite power to pull sleds to the North Pole.
The eco tech entrepreneurs of the 21st century are using kites in innovative ways. Instead of flying kites in the air the idea is to operate them under water instead of over and through clouds. Using a lightweight turbine, generator and rubber attached to a fixed point on the seabed with a tether, the kite or kite system can catch the best ocean currents and use tides to enhance power output. Tidal kite power technology has potential to grow tidal power renewable energy. One of the tidal tech companies, Minesto is tying old fashioned kites to Twenty-First Century technology to produce environmentally friendly energy.
The Romanic and Literary Sides of Kites
The chorus from Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins vividly captures kite movements.
“Oh, oh, oh! Let's go fly a kite Up to the highest height! Let's go fly a kite and send it soaring Up through the atmosphere Up where the air is clear Oh, let's go fly a kite!”
People have always looked up to the sky and wondered about the moon and stars and cloud meadows. Flying a kite is a way to let the mind and spirit soar and with the wind at your back, experience the illusion of power over the universe.
Like people, kites have changed and evolved through their centuries of life. People have shaped kites according to their cultural tastes and used them according to their cultural customs. Oral tradition says that the people of Micronesia used leaf kites to carry bait far out over the ocean where the gar fish waited. Polynesian myths tell the story of two brother gods introducing kites to man when they had a kite duel. The winning brother flew his kite the highest. Islanders still hold contests where the kite that flies the highest is dedicated to the Gods.
Kites are double edged symbols. On one hand they represent freedom from the constraints of every day life and the constraints that we put on ourselves. Part of the magic of Mary Poppins is the scene where Mr. Banks, the stuffy banker, flies kites with his children, Jane and Michael during business hours.
Kites can be used to symbolize the negative sides of human life as well. In the novel Kite Runner, set in Afghanistan, the kite represents the main character Amir’s life. When he participates in the kite competition, Amir forgets about his father and the way he is treated and focuses only on the kite flying. The kites in Kite Runner symbolize escapism as well as the negative aspects of human nature that indulge in kite fighting, cutthroat competition, and war.
Truman Capote’s short story called “A Christmas Memory” captures the hope and magic of kites. It is set in the South during the 1930s. Buddy and his elderly female cousin are the main characters and they live in a home with authoritarian others who don’t have much imagination or inclination to fly kites. On Christmas morning, Buddy and his female cousin get up early to open their presents. Buddy is disappointed with his gifts of second hand clothes and a subscription to a religious magazine. His friend received oranges and a hand knitted scarves. His dog Queenie gets a bone.
Buddy and his cousin give each other kites. They take the kites to a beautiful hidden meadow and fly them into the clear winter sky, while eating his cousin’s Christmas oranges. Buddy’s cousin believes that the kites and the meadow and sky are heaven and says that she believes that God and heaven must be like this.
The kite Christmas is their last Christmas together. A year later, Buddy is sent to military school. He and his cousin write constantly, but then the correspondence fades because his cousin is fading into dementia. She no longer remembers Buddy and soon she dies. Buddy says that a message informing him of his cousin's death just confirmed a fact that he already knew. He says that her death severed him "form an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven."
Capote, Truman. “A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006.
Gibbons, Gail. Catch the Wind: All About Kites, Little Brown & Company, 1995.
Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner, Riverhead Trade, 2004.
Travers, Dr. P.L., Mary Poppins. Sandpiper Revised Edition, 1997.
Yolen, Will. The Complete Book of Kites and Kite Flying, Simon & Shuster, First Edition, 1979