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 timeline.

History of kites - Cody kite replica.

Those smaller history write-ups are elsewhere on this site. Read through this timeline to get a sense of the awesome breadth and depth of this topic! Kites.

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 :-)

(Regarding that pinnable image—it's much bigger when pinned.)

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 two separate periods of Chinese history, the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 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.


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On this site, there's more kite-making info than you can poke a stick at :-)

Want to know the most convenient way of using it all?

The Big MBK E-book Bundle is a collection of downloads—printable PDF files which provide step-by-step instructions for many kites large and small.

Every kite in every MBK series.


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. This is 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 (1,000 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 onward...

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 not 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 USA during this century.

Original Hargrave Box kite.Hargrave Box - late 1800's

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 USA at this time. Some people continue to make and fly these "three-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 tailless diamond-kite designs, flown in trains. That is, they were 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 2,000 feet of altitude! Too bad the airplane was invented not many years later. A whole bunch of perfectly good Cody kites ended up in mothballs.

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. That was 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 20th 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 craft with oiled-silk sails and steel lines. They were very 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 1930s. This kite became very popular in the UK 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 forerunner 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 its 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 call at the same time. I'm getting exhausted just thinking about it. (Actually, as I found later, there was also a helium balloon in the kit.)

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 great heights! 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 kite aerial photography (KAP). 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 handmade and put together so well that they flew without tailsas 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 hardwood for the spars and paper for the sails. 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 "two sticker" diamonds would eventually give way to experimenting with "three 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. That's 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 USA, in 1950, although it wasn't patented until 1956. This was a simple two-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 tapered. This design was pretty successful, so for a long time this type of kite was known as the Scott sled.

The 1960s

Dual-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 two-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 six 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 parafoils, depending on their preference. Some well-known product names from this period, apart from the still-popular Peter Powells included Hawaiians, Flexifoils, Hyperkites, Trlbys, Rainbows, and Skynasaurs.

The Flexifoils were similar to 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 three compulsory maneuvers rated 1–10 plus a 1- to 3-minute freestyle demonstration. This was 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 four-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 two-line Peel kite in 1991. Being made in fairly large sizes, right up to 10 square meters (1,080 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 four-liner, construction and sales were handled by a company called Skynasaur.

Toward the end of the 90s, one of the original designers of the Flexifoil kite had even more success with a range of four-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. They were 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 UK, 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! That's 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 kite aerial photography (KAP) enthusiast, Ralf Beutnagel, made a kite like two Pearson rollers side by side. This resulted in a somewhat bigger kite with four bridle points instead of two. 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!)

Trilobyte, Ray and other post-2000 show kitesTrilobyte, ray and other post-2000 show kites

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, there is 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, three kites from Ozone. The Fury is "entry level" meaning easy handling 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 depowered 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 they are!

Ripstop nylon has become the favorite material for kite sails. This is not only for stunt kites but also 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 catchphrase 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 recreation of the famous San Francisco earthquake photo of 1906. Scott Haefner used a dopero kite to hoist a 1.3 kg (3 lb.) 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 ;-)

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:

Bird and Delta kites, seen at a festival.A modern homemade bird kite
  • Chinese kites
  • Japanese kites
  • box kites
  • stunt kites
  • power kites
  • sled kites
  • diamond kites
  • barn Door kites
  • delta kites
  • roller kites
  • dopero kites

That's it for my history of kites!


As mentioned earlier, there's more kite-making on this site than you can poke a stick at :-)

Want to know the most convenient way of using it all?

The Big MBK E-book Bundle is a collection of downloads—printable PDF files which provide step-by-step instructions for many kites large and small.

Every kite in every MBK series.