History Of Kites Essay

The History Of Kites

Ancient Chinese To Modern Stunters

The history of kites spans thousands of years. I merged a number of kite-type-specific histories to create this complete time-line. Those smaller history write-ups are elsewhere on this site, but I thought it would be interesting to merge them all together.

Now, I am not a professional historian, and the majority of this information was originally gleaned from the Web. Some sources are more reliable than others. Having said that, I believe that the overall accuracy of the information below is fair to good.

If you have expertise in any particular area and you can point out a definite error, please contact me, and it will be fixed. Hey, I've already been rapped over the knuckles once or twice ;-)

Covered in this history of kites are...

  • Chinese kites
  • Japanese kites
  • Box kites
  • Stunt kites
  • Power kites
  • Sled kites
  • Diamond kites
  • Barn Door kites
  • Delta kites
  • Roller kites
  • Dopero kites

Quite a few of the above-mentioned kite types may be spotted in the video below...

NOTE: Video views from this website don't appear to be counted.

This Traditional Box Kite from Amazon is a good example of modern retail designs you can buy online.

The History Of Kites
Between 1000 BC and 0 BC

Somewhere between 770 BC and 221 BC large wooden kites called muyuan were invented for military purposes. This period actually contained 2 separate periods of Chinese history, the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC - 476 BC) and the following Warring States Period (475-221 BC). Kites were seen as technology, and it seems the first ones were invented in the province of Shandong.

There is a record of a certain master of joinery named Mu Zi who developed a man-lifting kite over a period of 3 years. It was called the Wooden-Black-Eard-Kite. At least one more kite of this design was made in later years, by other craftsmen.

There is a record of further development of these kites during the Chu-Han War of 203-202 BC. Besides spying on enemy positions, kites were sometimes used to deliver urgent messages.

The History Of Kites
Between 1 AD and 1000 AD

The first century AD contained the prosperous Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). During this time all kinds of people discovered the simple enjoyment of kite flying. The traditional bamboo and paper, or bamboo and silk style of kite had its origin way back here.

Later in the history of kites in China, people came up with more designs and new ideas, such as the musical kite. There's a record of a palace worker in the 900s AD who fixed bamboo pipes to a kite. When flown, the pipes would make a sound in the wind, like the zheng, a stringed instrument. Ever since then, the word for kite in Chinese has been fengzheng.

Maybe there were some simple kites flown by ordinary people in this period. However, the 900s are known for the introduction of silk-covered kites with beautiful and detailed hand-painted designs. These kites also carried many ornate accessories such as streamers and ribbons. So much went into these kites that it's likely they were only made and used by the royalty and aristocracy of the time. In a word, these kites were expensive.

The History Of Kites
Between 1000 AD and 2000 AD

The history of kites after 1000 AD saw them becoming more popular in all levels of Chinese society. If you couldn't afford silk, you could always use paper! Some time after this, kite flying became a seasonal activity. Most flying was done during and after Chinese New Year and through to March or April. For some areas of China, the winds were better for kite flying at these times.

Finally, there sprung up a belief that kite flying was good for your health. This was around the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Other somewhat superstitious ideas were around at this time too. For example, letting go of the kite string might get rid of back luck or illness as the kite drifted away. On the other hand, picking up a kite lost by someone else would bring bad luck!

By the late 1900s, the Chinese had organized large kite flying festivals where the whole range of kites were on show. The keenest kite makers would show off their best kites. Just like other kite festivals around the world.

It's hard to beat large Chinese Dragon kites for sheer spectacle! One of these was over 300 meters (1000 feet) long and won first place in an International Kite Festival held in Italy. The same kite can still be seen in the Weifang Kite Museum.

Now for some Non-Chinese kite development from the 17th Century onwards...

The 17th Century

Did you know that evidence exists of recreational Diamond kites being flown in the 1600s? There is apparently an illustration in an old document that proves this. The book dates to 1618, and shows children flying diamond shaped kites in the town of Middelburg, Holland (now The Netherlands). It's fairly safe to assume that such kites were being flown in various parts of Europe at the time.

Most artistic Japanese kites were developed in the Edo period from 1603 to 1867. At this time, Japan was closed to foreigners. Different designs originated from different regions of the country, including the Sode Dako and Rokkaku. The latter design is today much copied and adapted in the West. These early kites would have been decorated with scenes from Japanese folklore or mythology. Bright geometric patterns were sometimes used too, which makes you wonder whether some of those early designs would look out of place today, hanging in the local kite shop...

The 18th Century

A lot could be written about the scientists in the 1700s and 1800s who used kites for various purposes. Benjamin Franklin's famous experiments with kites and electricity were supposedly performed in the mid 1700s. We know he suggested the use of a diamond kite from the text of a letter he wrote in October 1752. In it, he described how to make a kite from a 'large, thin silk handkerchief' and 'a small cross of two light strips of cedar'. Hence, crude Diamond kites were known and presumably flown as a hobby in the U.S. during this century.

The 19th Century

William Eddy, also from the United States, spent much of his life with a fascination for kites. During the mid 19th Century, he spent a lot of time making and flying hexagonal Barn Door kites, which were popular in the U.S. at this time. Some people, including yours truly, continue to make and fly these '3-stickers'.

By 1885, Barn Door kites were being used for scientific purposes. That's when a scientist called Alexander McAidie used flat Barn Door kites with tails for lifting meteorological instruments. He had a few headaches with them apparently! The tails kept wrapping around the flying line...

Later, in the 1890s, Eddy made important contributions to the use of kites for scientific purposes. Eddy experimented with tail-less diamond kite designs, flown in trains. That is, all linked together in line. These kite trains, or stacks as they are sometimes known today were used to hoist meteorological instruments to high altitude.

By 1892, all Eddy's kites featured the bowed cross-spar that enabled them to fly without tails. The 'Eddy Diamond' did a lot to make the diamond shape kite very popular and recognizable in the Western world at that time, and ever since.

However, the box kite and other related kite designs proved better for lifting work. Hence after Lawrence Hargrave from Australia invented his box kite in the late 1800s, the diamond kite quickly faded away from the scientific scene.

Early in the history of kites in the box style, they were used mainly for lifting. Hargrave used to link several together and even hoisted a very trusting human under the largest of them!

Samuel Cody, from the United States, later extended the rectangular box concept and made some winged box kites that were designed for the military.

The early 1900s

Cody patented his man-lifting system in 1901. The idea was that a human observer could provide an advantage on the battlefield, by observing the enemy from a great height. The wings and vanes made the kites even more stable and suited to lifting heavy objects.

Actually, somebody did once go up under a Cody kite to more than 2000 feet of altitude! Too bad the airplane was invented not many years later... A whole bunch of perfectly good Cody kites ended up in moth-balls.

On the topic of airplanes, notice how similar the oldest of biplanes were to box kites. The planes were basically box-kites with a tail and an engine added. No coincidence. Take for example, the Bristol Boxkite, a famous old aircraft. The earliest plane inventors, including the Wright brothers, tinkered with kites while they planned and dreamt about what they really wanted to build!

Later in the history of box kites, during the early twentieth century, they were used for measuring atmospheric conditions such as wind velocity, temperature, barometric pressure and humidity at a range of altitudes. These were large, with oiled silk sails and steel lines. Nice and stable with great lifting power.

The Roloplan design, ancestor of the Pearson Roller, was first sold in 1909.

The 1930s

The Roloplan was marketed by Steiff, a German toy manufacturer in the 1930's. This kite became very popular in the U.K. for a time, particularly in London where it coped well with small park flying. Many people at the time thought it was actually a British design! Copying this kite accurately would have been a tiresome chore because of the fiddly bridling and multiple line connections between the upper and lower sails.

No wonder an Englishman decided to redesign it into a much simpler kite, while retaining the original outline and vented sail concept. Hence the Roloplan was the fore-runner of the much more well-known Pearson Roller kite, which came decades later.

The 1940s

Another military application can be found in the emergency kits issued to pilots in the Second World War, in the 1940s. Called the Gibson-Girl Box Kite, it could be flown by a pilot lost at sea, with it's line acting as the aerial for a radio transmitter. So if there was no wind, I guess the pilot had to paddle his life raft like a lunatic, while trying to make the radio all at the same time. I'm getting exhausted just thinking about it.

The Delta as we know it today had its origins in a copy of a Chinese bird kite, way back in the 1940s. An architect named Wilbur Green, known as Bill Green made the first prototype, and it flew so well that a kite making business was soon established.

The 1950s

Just about the whole time all this military stuff was going on, and up to this day, radio enthusiasts have used box kites for hoisting up aerials to a great height! I guess ham radio isn't as big as it once was, but there you have it, another application for box kites.

Another application that has been going on for quite some time is KAP, or Kite Aerial Photography. Designs based on the box kite are nice and stable in the air and so are ideal for mounting photographic gear. Mind you, these days weight isn't such an issue with lipstick cams and similar tiny devices being available! There are even some kits around that include kite, camera and other necessary bits and pieces.

By 1957, Bill Green's business had successfully patented the keeled Delta kite, and was selling them under the Gayla brand name. These designs were lovingly hand made, and put together so well that they flew without tails - as the best Deltas do.

By the mid 1900s, making and flying Barn Door kites was still a popular American pastime. Popular materials were thin strips of hard wood for the spars and paper for the sail. A cotton framing line was fitted into slots in the spar tips, and the paper sail material folded over and glued.

In many families, the making of '2-sticker' diamonds would eventually give way to experimenting with '3-stickers' for extra challenge and fun. It was a hobby for young and old alike.

Like some other types of Western kites, the Sled kite had its origins not long after the end of the Second World War. The 50s in other words. Isn't it interesting how kite design blossomed after the planet started to relax a bit...

The first design was credited to William Allison of Ohio, in the U.S.A., in 1950 although it wasn't patented until 1956. This was a simple 2-spar tapered kite that was invented for recreational use. Later, in 1954, another resident of Ohio, Frank Scott, came up with another version. This one had vents for stability, and the sides were parallel instead of tapering. This design was pretty successful, so for a long time this type of kite was known as the Scott Sled.

The 1960s

2 line stunt kites for the general public weren't invented until the 60s. In fact, the very first production stunt kite was named the Glite. It went on sale in 1967.

By 1961, Bill Green had retired and sold the Gayla kite business on. Some people were already referring to these kites as Deltas around this time.

'The Nantucket Kiteman', Al Hartig then produced a new delta design in 1963. He named it the Valkyrie, and it was inspired by the Gayla kite. This finally prompted a lot of interest in Deltas generally, so many people started making them.

The 1970s

A very significant early power kite was the Flexifoil. Way back in the 70s, it was a 2-line design by Ray Merry and Andrew Jones who worked in England. Flexifoil is now the name of a kiting company.

This was the era that stunt kite flying really started to blossom. That's because the Peter Powell Stunt Kite was developed in 1972. At last it was much easier for anyone to buy and fly a stunt kite. The Peter Powell kite was a diamond with a very long, inflatable tail. The idea at the time was to trace big patterns in the sky with the tail! Although the materials used to construct it have been updated, this design is still popular.

The 1980s

By the late 80s, an improved foil design called the Sparless Stunter was being sold. Designed by Ted Dougherty, it had 6 cells and a square outline. It was soon overshadowed by even more advanced kites...

During this time, many manufacturers came out with delta shaped stunt kites. Watching or competing in kite flying contests became a cool thing to do. At this point in the history of stunt kites, team flying became a spectator sport with stacked kites performing colorful precision maneuvers in the breeze. People flew deltas, diamonds or flexifoils, depending on their preference. Some well-known names from this period, apart from the still-popular Peter Powells included Hawaiians, Hyperkites, Flexifoils, Trlbys, Rainbows and Skynasaurs.

The flexifoils were similar to the parafoils which had been invented in the early 60s, but had a flexible spar running the entire length of the leading edge. The flexifoils got a reputation for being very fast through the air!

Any history of stunt kites should mention one particularly notable design of the period, the Mirage. This kite was a cleverly designed tailless delta that managed to win a lot of contests in the mid to late 80s. This design was by Mike Jones, of Jones Airfoils. In those days, flyers would do 3 compulsory maneuvers rated 1-10 plus a 1-3 minute freestyle demonstration. All pretty basic stuff compared to what can be seen in modern contests.

Also during the mid 80s, the so-called 'big wing' stunt kites were invented. These kites were deltas with wingspans up to about 2.5 meters (8 feet). The first of this kind was called the Hawaiian Team Kite.

The 1990s

Soon after the Sparless Stunter came the Quadrifoil, also by Ted Dougherty. One of the very first 4-liners in the history of power kites, the Quadrifoil traction kite was rectangular in outline and was first seen in competition in 1990. This name became a brand, and many later versions of the original Quadrifoil were sold as the Competition C1 and C3. Also, there was a Q2000 range and finally a Competition X range of Quadrifoil kites. All these later kites were roughly elliptical in outline, and weren't actually designed by Ted Dougherty.

While all this was happening, another kite designer called Peter Lynn was just as busy. Peter came out with the 2-line Peel kite in 1991. Being made in fairly large sizes, right up to 10 square meters (1080 square feet), the Peel was most often used for traction. A popular kite, it was still selling in the late 90s.

Another kite which was sold in the mid 90s was the QuadTrac, again by Ted Dougherty. A 4-liner, construction and sales were handled by a company called Skynasaur.

Towards the end of the 90s, one of the original designers of the Flexifoil kite had even more success with a range of 4-liners called Skytiger. Sticking with the rectangular outline like the Flexifoil, the Skytiger kites were reliable and stable traction kites. After the original range came the 'Hi' series. The new kites were able to pull even harder.

Around about this time, some traction kites were designed for pure speed. A bit trickier to fly though! A good example of this was the Predator, by Peter Mirkovic of Sky Kites. In the late 90s, this was the most successful design in the U.K., being used a lot in buggy races.

From the 90s and on, the early parafoil idea was developed into traction or power kites in which the main idea was to get pulled along on a surfboard, land buggy or snowboard. However, some designs remain in use as sparless stunt kites by a lot of people because there's nothing rigid to break! Great for people just getting started in stunt kite flying. But say 'stunt kite' today, and it really means 'delta stunt kite' to most people.

In 1994 a young German KAP (Kite Aerial Photography) enthusiast, Ralf Beutnagel, made a kite like 2 Pearson Rollers side by side. This resulted in a somewhat bigger kite with 4 bridle points instead of 2. The extra lifting power was needed to get the camera gear aloft, the Pearson design being a bit too small for the job. When comparing plans for the original Roloplan with those of a modern Dopero, it's very easy to see the connection!

Plans for the original Dopero design and a much larger Maxi version were published in the KAP magazine Aerial Eye late in the 1990s.

The History Of Kites
Since 2000 AD (the Noughties!)

Although all the traditional forms of Chinese kites can still be seen, some Chinese kite makers are getting more adventurous these days. New innovative designs, 'art kites' and novelty designs are appearing. This is just like the Western kite scene. With travel and communication so easy these days, I guess Eastern and Western kite making is bound to merge together even more in the future!

The history of kites in China features yearly festivals. These are still popular, for example the World Kite Festival at Weifang, in Shandong Province. Shandong?! Hey, that's where the very first kites that we know about were constructed and flown. How about that. Full circle.

To see Chinese kites purely as art, you can see a great collection at the International Kite Museum, also in WeiFang. You can walk down the halls and visually take in much of the history of Chinese kites.

Moving now to the West...

How did the history of kites of the traction kind change in the New Millennium? Well, the most interesting development was probably how paraglider manufacturers entered the traction kite market! In particular, a well-known French company called Ozone. These guys build aircraft so it's no surprise that the kites they produce are very high quality.

Power kites these days are specialized like never before. Take for example, 3 kites from Ozone. The Fury is 'entry level' meaning nice and stable for new kite flyers. The Yakusa is designed specifically for buggy racing. Another design, the Access, is sold as an all-rounder although it was originally designed for snowkiting. With its extra line, it can be de-powered quickly if you are hit with a strong gust of wind.

Since the year 2000, the history of kites has seen a general trend for greater and greater variety in weird and wonderful cellular kites. Spectacular, colorful, multi-celled, tumbling and rotating works of aerial art!

Rip-stop nylon has become the favorite material for kite sails. Not only kites for stunting, but just about every kind of commercially available kite.

An example of a sparless stunt kite is the Stardust CAD. Suitable for beginners, it's hardy and doesn't have a huge pull. There are plenty of parafoil stunt kites on the market, with the main advertising catch-phrase being 'nothing to break, just have fun'.

A somewhat more high-performing kite design is the Prism Stylus range of kites. These come in ready-to-fly packages which include Spectra lines, winder, flight straps, and a tiny stuff sack or bag for storing and transporting.

Seattle Airgear is a company that is very serious about designing, making and flying stunt kites. They use aeronautical engineering know-how to develop their kites. For the more fussy flyer there is the WindDance Dual-line Parafoil Stunt Kite.

People have constantly found new ways to alter the original Sled kite concept. Brightly colored Sleds in many different configurations can be seen advertised in the online kite shops. Besides that, kite enthusiasts are always experimenting with their own versions of what has gone before. Occasionally, something quite new and different pops up. However, people have found that complex kite designs don't always fly well on the first attempt! Simple is best.

Driven by demand from the KAP community mainly, the Dopero kite has been produced commercially since the Millennium and remains a favorite light wind kite for that purpose. In fact, in 2006 the Dopero featured in a notable piece of KAP history. That is, the re-creation of the famous San Francisco earthquake photo of 1906. Scott Haefner used a Dopero kite to hoist a 1.3 kg (3 pound) KAP rig in light winds, near to where the original panoramic photograph was taken.

That's it for my history of kites!

Ever thought of making your own kites from cheap everyday materials? The big MBK Book Bundle has step-by-step instructions plus lots more. Being PDF files, you can get nice-looking printouts for selected pages.

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Flying kites is a popular pastime in China.

When we talk about the skies above China, we are often referring to topics like pollution or busy airlines. But beneath the clouds there is a Chinese art form that has glided through history. This ancient relic brings the colors and patterns of the ancient dynasties to the city skies of modern China and the world. It's the famous Chinese kite and its long history of cultural significance begins thousands of years ago. 

What Are Chinese Kites?

The kite is believed to have originated in China. Since its invention, there have been many adaptations to the kite by various cultures around the world. The kite you probably flew as a kid looks a bit different to the original Chinese kites and even the kites of modern China. 

A Chinese kite in ancient times would have used simple materials such as wood and cloth. They were often made to resemble the shapes of birds. Today, elaborate and large designs can be seen flying above parks in China. They will often resemble real animals and members of the Chinese Zodiac. Some kites will have LED lights attached to allow for night flights and fun light shows. 

When Were Kites Invented?

Kites were invented in the early Warring States Period (475 - 221 B.C.) by Mozi and Lu Ban, two philosophers who came after the teachings of Confucius. The kites were exclusive to China for many years before the knowledge of how to make and use them advanced. The period saw many attacks from foreign powers, as well as civil unrest. Kites played a role in providing military intelligence for the Chinese forces. 

Why Were Kites Invented? 

Mainly, they were used for military purposes. The first kites were what we today would call prototype kites: they were made of light wood and cloth. They were designed to mimic a bird's natural flight. The first Chinese kites were used for measuring distances, which was useful information for moving large armies across difficult terrain. They were also used to calculate and record wind readings and provided a unique form of communication similar to ship flags at sea. 

Chinese Kites Today

Kites are still very popular in modern China.

Chinese kites usually represent mythological characters, symbolic creatures, as well as legendary figures. Some have whistles or strings designed to make unique sounds while flying. We can divide them into two categories: large and small kites. In size they can range between 304 meters and 30 centimeters across. Today, you will see people flying small kites with children in many Chinese parks. You can also see adults flying the larger kites and using more advanced methods with larger ropes to support the great size. 

Historic Kite Styles 

Kites in China were made with wood, paper, and/or silk. The earliest kites were made from light varieties of wood and later developed to included ornamental paper and fabric. Kites in China are typically broken down into three categories: 

Wooden Kites

Wooden kites were called mu yuan. Mention of this prototype kite – the bird style referred above – stems from tales of Mozi (BCE 470-391) who was a philosopher. Mozi lived a century later than Confucius (BCE 551-479) and was opposed the teachings of both Confucianism and Taoism. He wrote about the use of wooden bird kites in China during his lifetime. 

Paper Kites

Another source indicates that a paper kite, the zhi yuan, was used as an emergency warning device. This occurred a millennium later, when the kite was flown in order to appeal for help during the siege of Nanjing. Paper kites are still used in China, but are seen as more of a traditional art than a viable pastime. 

Lighter Kites

It was not until the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty that lighter kites made of first silk and then paper (bamboo was a common material used for the ribs) made their appearance. It was at this time that the kite came to transcend its humble military, or functional, origins, becoming an instrument of pleasure. 

It was not long before artisans began to compete in creating the most artistic, the most acrobatic kites. During the Ming (CE 1368-1644) and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasties, kite making and flying had become an art form. Kites featured colorful decorations in the form of birds, flowers, blossoms, and of course, calligraphy. The Chinese kite, not unlike the case of the Chinese lantern and the Chinese umbrella, became a vehicle of artistic expression – oftentimes with literary overtones.

Kite Construction

Kite making is an ancient Chinese art form.

The construction of kites has changed over the years. New materials and better understanding of flight have given modern kites a serious advantage in flight. However the ancient methods are still interesting and worthy of note.

Ancient Kite Construction

Kite construction consists of three parts: framing, gluing and decoration. With framing, light woods such as bamboo were often used to create the bones of the kite. These are both light, exceptionally strong, and pliable. Many frame shapes were popular, including traditional representations of birds, butterflies and dragonflies, as well as non-winged insects such as centipedes or mythical animals like dragons. 

Modern Kite Construction 

Modern kite artisans go beyond the traditional, producing kites that conform only to the creator's imagination. Material such as plastic and nylon allow for bright colors and enhanced durability. LED lights and specialized noise makers also enhance the kite flying and viewing experience. Sometimes movement is incorporated into a kite by means of a hinged arrangement of sections of the frame, suggesting wing or tail movement, etc.

Materials used for Construction

Silk, paper, nylon and other modern materials are used for the kite's "sail". Silk is very beautiful but also more expensive and more fragile. Paper is both cheaper and more practical to work with, and it lends itself admirably to decoration. The paper type used for kites is very thin but fibrous, which both reduces weight and ensures strength. It is often treated with a with a thin layer of oil to preserve it. Once the kite's sail material is glued to the bamboo frame, the kite is then decorated. In addition, tassels and sometimes hollow reeds are attached to the kite in order to give it movement or produce sound.

The Weifang Kite Tradition

Flying kites is a popular pastime in China.

The city of Weifang, Shandong Peninsula, has a special relationship to the kite. The city is namely home to the International Kite Association, and holds the Weifang International Kite Festival from April 20th to the 25th each year. Kite enthusiasts in the thousands, and from all corners of the globe, descend upon the city of Weifang at this time each year to participate in the kite competitions. Tourists flock just to watch this majestic and colorful spectacle. The climax of the festival is the crowning of the annual "Kite King". Weifang also has a museum dedicated to the history of the kite.

Marco Polo and the Expansion of Chinese Kites

It was in the city of Weifang that Marco Polo, in 1282, supposedly witnessed the flying of a manned kite

According to Marco Polo's travel diary, there existed a tradition in Weihai at the time for testing the wind with a kite in order to determine if an imminent voyage would be good or not. This was done by binding a sailor to a large kite to a ship as it "rode with the wind", then casting kite and sailor 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 a good one.

When he returned to Italy, Marco Polo brought with him a Chinese kite, and soon, thanks to the Silk Road, the Chinese kite became known throughout Europe, and from Europe, it would of course travel to the New World, the Americas. 

In the History of Flight pavilion at the National Aeronautics and Space Museum in Washington D.C. a plaque is inscribed to the humble Chinese kite. It states, "The earliest aircraft made by man were the kites and missiles of ancient China."

See Kites and More of What You Want in China

Kite making is an ancient Chinese art form.

To learn more about Chinese kites, you might be interested in a Shandong tour. Our popular China tours can be extended to Shandong. We can also design a bespoke itinerary to meet your requirements and provide you with a free quote.

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