Kites have been very instrumental in the history of aviation. Most of the early aviators used kites to develop their theories before actually taking flight. The first humans to gain the distinction of flying among the birds did so with the aid of kites.
During the kite’s very early history in China, and later Japan, man carrying kites were built. There are many stories in the lore of both these countries of kites bearing men aloft. These kites were used primarily for military purposes as observational tools. Marco Polo (1254 - 1324), after his wanderings in China, documented the many uses for kites there.
The first scientist to use kites to study aviation was a Franciscan friar named Roger Bacon (1214?-1294). History remembers Roger Bacon for his scientific studies in many different fields including mathematics, optics, and astronomy. Bacon was the Western World's first true scientist, preceeding the emergence of widespread scientific study in Europe by about 500 years. During his experiments with kites, he came to the conclusion that if a craft were properly constructed, it could be supported by air in the same fashion that water supports a boat.
It wasn't until Sir George Cayley (1773-1857), almost 500 years later, that serious work was again done with kites in the field of aviation. Cayley, because of his work, is often called the "Father of Aviation." A native of Scarbourgh, England, this English baronet was an inventor who created the basic design of the airplanes flown today. Many of Cayley's designs for aircraft were developed during the ten year period from 1799 through 1809. He designed and built an aircraft which flew like a kite which had a movable tail and could be maneuvered.
Otto Lilienthal, a German engineer, dominated aviation history in the late 1800's. He is known mostly for his work with gliders, but his early experiments in the 1870's were primarily with kites. The lessons he learned from the kites he built and flew led directly to the many gliders he designed and flew. Over 2000 times he took to the air in flight. One fatal day his glider stalled at an altitude of around fifty feet. The glider crashed and he severed his spine. He died the next day.
Orville and Wilbur Wright represent the culmination of this long, historic process. They studied Lilienthal's designs and decided to base their initial designs on his. Using a biplane box kite they designed in 1899, they tested their theories on aircraft control. The kite framework of this kite was hinged, allowing it to twist. It was controlled from the ground, using four lines, one tied to each corner of the frame. They learned to control the kite using this system, and could make it bank, dive and climb.
The following year they constructed a glider, using the kite as a guide. This glider had enough lifting capacity to lift a man, but they decided fly it like a kite at first, using the same ground control system they had devised for the kite. Their experiments with this craft led to the design, construction, and eventual success with the flight of the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
Kites have had an instrumental role in the rise of the science of aviation. From the Chinese in the fifth century BC to the Wright Brothers in 1903, the kite has made its mark in the history of flight.
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