History Of The Kite

History of the kite, including original Chinese uses, fishing, flying a kite, making a kite, and kite festivals.

No one knows exactly who flew the first kites or where they were first created, but historians believe that kites developed almost simultaneously and independently in both China and Malaysia approximately 3000 years ago. The inhabitants of the South Sea Islands used kites for many purposes, including communicating with the gods, divination, and funerals. One of the main uses, however, was for fishing. Bait was tied to the tail and the kite was equipped with a net to capture the hapless fish. In China, legends and stories about kites also date back about 3000 years. Stories are told of the Chinese military using kites as a distraction and a weapon to confound their enemies. The soldiers are said to have used kites to fly explosives and fireworks over their enemies' heads, causing them to believe that evil spirits were attacking. The frightened enemy troops quickly retreated. Another Chinese story tells of a general who had difficulty with his own troops after they had seen a shooting star and were frightened by it. They felt the fire falling from the sky was an evil omen and were leaving the battlefield. The general used a kite to carry a flame back up into the sky and out of sight. The soldiers were convinced that the star had been returned to the sky and that the evil omen had been reversed. They went on to win their battle.

There are documented stories of the Chinese soldiers using kites for war dating back to 200 BCE. One Chinese general, Huan Theng, used kites to frighten the opposing army and also to raise scouts into the air to have a greater vantage when exploring. Explorers and Buddhist monks spread knowledge of kites and kite flying around Asia in the years that followed. Kites took on great religious significance in many countries during this time. In Thailand, farmers sent messages to the gods on kites, pleading for moderation in the annual monsoons so crops would not be destroyed. Korean families flew a kite in honor of newborn baby boys, and then cut the kite loose so that the bad luck the child had been born with would be taken away with the kite for the child's first year of life. Kites were used to frighten birds away from crops and to bring construction materials up to the desired heights to build taller buildings. In Japan, an enterprising thief named Kakinoki Kinsuke came up with a creative way to commit his crime. He used a kite to fly over the walls and up to the roof of Nagoya Castle, intending to steal golden scales off of a sculpture of a dolphin. His idea worked well, and he got into the castle safely but was later captured and executed.

In India, kites have had a major place in the culture for centuries. The world's largest kite festival is held in Ahmedabad every January fourteenth and boasts over 100,000 kites in the sky at once. Kite fighting, a sport where kite flyers attempt to knock other kites from the sky, is a popular pastime. Kites are so important in this culture that the Hindi language has over 100 words for kites.

European explorers brought knowledge of kites from Asia to the western world. In 1295, Marco Polo was the first to document this knowledge by sharing written accounts of how to construct and fly kites that he had seen in Asia. Descriptions of kites were more widely publicized in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when books outlined their construction and use. Europeans considered kites to be wonderful children's toys during this time, and there are paintings depicting children flying diamond-shaped kites dating back at least to 1618.

In the 1700's, scientists discovered that kites were quite useful in inquiry about the weather. Alexander Wilson, a Scottish meteorologist, used a kite in 1749 to measure air temperatures at 3000 feet with an attached thermometer. In 1752, Ben Franklin completed his famous experiment using a kite to prove that lightning was in reality electricity. George Cayley used kites in experiments to design a flying machine, and George Pocock developed a carriage that was pulled by a kite. Starting in 1833, kites were commonly used by meteorologists to study and record information about the conditions above the earth and weather forecasting took a dramatic step forward. Scientists continued to use kites to help with weather prognostication until airplanes and weather balloons came into common usage in the 1930's. Kites were also used for some of the first aerial photography.

World War I saw the use of kites in military capacities in Europe. Kites were used to allow long-distance observations from a higher vantage point. The difference was dramatic: an observer at sea level could see for approximately eight kilometers. When raised to four hundred feet, the same lookout could see for nearly forty kilometers. During World War II, kites were provided with life rafts and intended for use in raising emergency antennas when sailors needed to abandon their ships. The United States Navy used highly-maneuverable kites for target practice.

In the 1950's and 60's, NASA began to experiment with various kite designs to aid in spaceship recovery. Many of these new designs led to advances in hang gliding and other forms of ultra-light flying vehicles. Space-age materials, such as plastics, Mylar, and other lightweight inventions led to advances in kite design. Interest in kite flying as recreational and sport activity has been increasing steadily during this time. Moving far beyond the traditional diamond-shaped kite made from paper and lightweight wooden supports, the new kites explore control with two or four strings, different kinds of tails for balance and control and various shapes and designs. Today, kite competitions abound around the world. Children the world over play with kites, and adults have joined the fun, too.

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