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Let’s Go Fly A Kite

Let’s Go Fly A Kite

By Drew Bigelow, FCPL Library Aide, Kingstowne Library

With its abundance of green space, Fairfax County is a great place to spend time outside during the spring. One activity that sees an increase in participation this time of year is flying a kite. Visit any park and you are bound to encounter a group of sporters, young and old, taking to the skies with an amazing array of colorful contraptions. Just as the types of kites you might see are interesting and varied, so too is their history. Though modernly seen as freewheeling toys or sporting equipment, the story of kites goes back much further, flying through different cultures with a multitude of uses in its long history.

Historians disagree as to where and when kites originated, with the beginnings of making and flying kites often combined with legends and superstition, as explained by an article in Retrospect Journal, Edinburgh University’s history, classics and archeology magazine. Many historians point to China as the birthplace of the kite, with the first written record of kite flying dating back to 200 B.C., as noted by the American Kitefliers Association. One story concerns the philosopher and inventor Lu Ban, whose teacher Mozi made a wooden kite in the shape of a bird, which was meant to send his student flying. Lu Ban is said to have flown for three days before crashing down. However, the truth of this story is often debated and regarded as a legend, according to Stephanie Hall’s piece on the Library of Congress’ Folklore Today Blog. Hall goes on to point out that evidence suggests that kites had been used in Pacific Island nations long before Lu Ban was born.

Regardless of where kites were invented, much of what is known about their history is based in China. Early kite makers used bamboo and silk to make the frame, lines and sail due to their ready availability according to the Retrospect Journal article. Later, with Tsai Lun’s invention of paper circa 100 A.D., people began to fashion paper kites, which were cheaper to make, as explained by Dr. Karen Carr, a history professor at Portland State University, in an article on her blog. Though popular as playthings, kites were used in China for much more than that. One of their purposes was during times of war. Carr notes that they were used as ways to send messages and signals, carry bombs over enemy lines, and intimidate other armies.

As trade routes opened, kites eventually began to find popularity in other countries, with the American Kitefliers Association mentioning that people in Korea and parts of the Middle East were flying kites as early as the 13th century and in Europe during the 14th to 15th centuries. As their popularity began to grow, so did their uses. Encyclopedia Brittanica reports that the first recorded scientific application of a kite took place in 1749 when Alexander Wilson utilized one for meteorological purposes. Following that, perhaps the most famous use of a kite in America took place in 1752 when Benjamin Franklin completed his well-known experiment of proving that lightning was electricity by flying a kite with a key attached during a thunderstorm.

Later, kites lent themselves to the innovation of flight and flying machines. Encyclopedia Brittanica cites the example of Sir George Cayley, considered to be “the father of aeronautics,” whose usage of kites led to him completing the first recorded manned flight in a glider in 1853. Other aeronautical pioneers would follow suit such as Otto Lilienthal, who, in the 1890s would become the original hang-glider through his experimentation with “aeroplane kites” and the Wright Brothers, arguably the most well-known aeronautic experts of their time, who used kites as prototypes for their original airplane designs. It was through these experiments that they discovered “the missing ingredient for manned flight that had baffled other aviation pioneers,” - a way to control the wings. This would lead to the birth of the airplane.

Today, kites have mostly left the spheres of science and warfare, settling into their current role as a fun pastime for families and hobbyists. While they may no longer have the cultural significance they once did, their long and storied past serves as a reminder that sometimes, even the simplest of things can make a lasting impact.

Fairfax Virtual Assistant