Flying Colors April 8, 2002
On a Wing and a Breath
Spring has finally arrived. It's time to put away the sleds and snow shovels and go rummaging through the house for more appropriate playthings. And what can be better for the blustery month of April than the enduring, much-loved toy: the kite?

Before planes, before balloons, the first heavier-than-air craft to soar the skies was the kite. These colorful, beautifully patterned creations have fascinated people of all ages for at least 2,000 years. Kites hold a universal appeal — they can be found in countries throughout the world. Beyond the simple fun of flying a kite, history shows that many cultures relied on kites for numerous religious, military, and scientific purposes.

The kite is believed to have originated in China. The kite's initial purpose seems to have been one of divination — a way to predict or influence the future. If you were a Chinese citizen during the Sung Dynasty (950-1126 AD), for example, you might have flown a rectangular kite on Kite Day to avoid bad luck for a year. The Japanese, who inherited the basic rectangle kite from the Chinese, began creating kites in the shapes of cranes, fish, turtles, and dragons, all of which are symbols of prosperity, fertility, or good luck in that country. Japanese farmers during the 1700s flew kites to invoke plentiful harvests and to give thanks for past seasons.

In wartime, Japanese military leaders sent messages to allies and food to troops via kites. They also tied kites to soldiers in order to lift the soldiers into the sky so that they could see farther, allowing them to better track their enemies.

Photographer Ron Kramer
The images of kites appearing in this edition of the Current and on the Riverdeep homepage are by photographer Ron Kramer. Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ron loves things that fly. You can visit his kite site and photography studio.
The Outdoor Laboratory
Around the thirteenth century, explorers such as Marco Polo brought these marvelous flying machines home to Europe, where they were viewed as children's toys. That belief changed during the eighteenth century, when kites were first used in scientific experiments.

In 1752, Benjamin Franklin conducted an experiment you definitely don't want to try at home. Franklin wanted to prove that lightning contains the same properties as electricity, so he came up with the novel idea of using a kite to test his theory. He tied a key to a kite string and flew the kite in a thunderstorm. When lightning struck, sparks flew around the key. The experiment is now legendary.

In 1833, British meteorologist E.D. Archibold used kites to lift anemometers to measure wind speed at different altitudes. Archibold's method greatly improved the weather forecasting of the day, and kites continued to be used for weather forecasting until the mid-1930s — at which time they could reach altitudes of almost 32,000 feet.

Almost 50 years later, Archibold was still flying kites — this time to take aerial photographs. He accomplished this feat by setting off small explosive charges to release the camera shutter.

  • Why might photographs taken from the sky be important?

Aerial photographs allow people to view an object or a location from a distance and to get a general overview of the surrounding area. Kite aerial photography has aided military reconnaissance, disaster assessment, and scientific surveys. Kites remain an inexpensive way to get overhead shots of archeological sites.

Flying Works of Art
Kites have always enjoyed a special status in Japan, a country rich with the lightweight kite-making materials of bamboo and paper.

Would you consider a kite shaped like a butterfly or like a bee to be toys or works of art? Can they be both?

What other materials might be ideal for making kites? Why?

Learn how to make your own kites.

See how kite enthusiast Ron Kramer manages to fly kites indoors.

See more colorful kite creatures at the China Pan Kite Factory.

What Makes a Kite Fly?
Four forces affect a kite: gravity, lift, thrust, and drag.

Earth's gravity pulls everything toward Earth. Of course, the whole idea of getting something to fly is to defy gravity. The heavier a kite is, the more difficult it will be to overcome gravity, to get the kite into the air, and to keep it there.

The force that stops a kite from falling to the ground is called lift. Lift is produced by air moving more quickly over the top surface of the kite than underneath. Fast-moving air creates less pressure, which means there is more pressure beneath the kite, forcing it upward.

Thrust is the force that moves something forward through the air. Birds use muscle power to create thrust; airplanes use engines. A kite cannot make its own thrust. A kite must be held in place with a string or line while the wind moves past. If there is no wind, the person holding the kite string must start running — thus making their own wind.

What prevents a kite from flying straight overhead and then plummeting to the ground behind you? The air flowing over a kite is slowed by the kite's fabric and sticks. This is a form of friction and is called drag. Kite tails provide even more drag. Air flowing through a kite tail pulls the bottom of the kite in the direction that the wind is blowing. If more drag is caused by the tail than by the rest of the kite, then the kite will always point into the wind. If a kite has too little tail, it will move from one side to the other and may even start spinning. If the kite has too much tail, the kite will be stable, but may be hard to keep flying because it's too heavy.

Fighter Kites
The Nagasaki fighter kite from Japan is the most famous fighter kite. It is believed that it is a derivation of a fighter kite first developed in India. It seems likely that Dutch traders introduced the kite from India during Japan's closed-country Edo period (approximately 1600 to 1867), when Westerners were only allowed to visit the port of Nagasaki.

View samples of the Hata.

Having Fun with Kites
Kite-flying festivals are popular throughout the world. Many kite-flying festivals throughout Asia hold "kite fights," an ancient tradition in which participants try to force their opponents' kites from the sky by cutting their lines. Small, maneuverable "fighter kites" are attached to glass-coated "cutting lines," which are used to cut the lines holding rival kites.

In China, the month of April is filled with kite-flying festivals. Thailand's International Kite Festival took place last month. In Thailand, all kites fall into one of two categories: chula (male) or pakpao (female) kites. The kites are huge and require several people to fly them.

Visitors from around the world flock to Ahmedabad, India, for the International Kite Festival on January 14. The festival coincides with the Indian festival of Uttarayan, which celebrates the end of winter. There's no better way to welcome spring than by viewing — and flying — kites all day.

Related Activities
The Power of Helios
NASA's solar-powered airplane, Helios, flexes and moves like a kite. Find out more in this Riverdeep archive article.
Fasten your Seatbelts
Read about a student pilot's adventures when first learning to fly an airplane in this archive article.
It's a Bird, It's a Plane
Leonardo da Vinci was a visionary who imagined all kinds of flying machines. Find out about his ornithopter in this archive article.