Hargrave Box - late 1800's
Hargrave Box - late 1800's
Now, I am not a professional historian, and the majority of
this information was originally gleaned from the Web.
Some online sources are
more reliable than others. Having said that, I believe that the overall
accuracy of the information below is fair to very good.
Whatever your reasons for looking up this topic, it's just possible that you might get enthused about one kind of kite or another during your read.
The wonder and intrigue of flight :-)
When the weather's good and you have the time, it's great to get out with a kite or 3. But what about on bad weather days? Then it's time to pull out...
"Kites Up!" - my downloadable kite-flying board game! Apart from towing indoor kites, doing a spot of imaginary flying is the next best thing :-)
Trilobyte, Ray and other post-2000 show kites
Trilobyte, Ray and other show kites
Anyway, on with the 'history of kites' lesson. It's a long one....
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
If you have expertise in any particular area and you can point out a definite error in the info above, please contact me, and it will be fixed. Hey, I've already been rapped over the knuckles once or twice ;-)
A modern home-made Bird kite
A modern home-made Bird kite
This history of kites covered a lot of ground. Just to summarize most of the kite types that got a mention, here's a list...
- Chinese kites
- Japanese kites
- Box kites
- Stunt kites
- Power kites
- Sled kites
- Diamond kites
- Barn Door kites
- Delta kites
- Roller kites
- Dopero kites
A number of the above-mentioned types of kites may be spotted in the video below...
That's it for my history of kites!
As mentioned earlier, there's another alternative to towing indoor kites if it's just not possible to fly outdoors...
"Kites Up!" is my downloadable board game. It's a PDF file which has all the documentation for the game plus images for all the components. Tokens, cards, the board itself and so on. Anyway, just click that link to see more info :-)