Before he parachuted over volcanoes, jet-setted around the world, and traveled to the moon, man flew kites. From exploration to recreation, we have piloted kites for thousands of years of scientific discovery and high-flying entertainment, and our modern world would not be the same without their contributions.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the kite is the oldest known heavier-than-air craft that is designed to gain lift from the wind while attached to a tether. Kites have been used to catch fish, ward off evil, measure the weather, and photograph the Earth. Kites have been integral in sending messages and winning wars, and famously a kite was key in Benjamin Franklin’s discovery of the lightning rod.
Nearly 3,000 years ago, the first kites made their appearance in China, fashioned from silk and bamboo. Many of the earliest kite designs were square, decorated with mythological creatures and outfitted with whistles to make musical sounds while waving in the wind.
Flash forward to the turn of a new century, and two American brothers turned a humble kite experiment into the first successful motor-operated aircraft. In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright’s discovery of “wing warping,” or the ability to control an aircraft’s wings separately while in flight, paved the way for modern air and space travel.
Over the past century, kites have returned to a mostly recreational pastime. Though they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, today’s most popular recreational kite styles include diamond, box, and delta shapes, according to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum. Most kites have three main components: the body, the bridle, and the control line. A kite’s body is made up of framework and an outer covering, both typically made from lightweight material like wood and plastic. The kite’s bridle and control line allow the flier on the ground to control the kite as it soars through the sky.
Everything that flies in the sky — from cranes to Cessnas — is kept there by the four forces of flight: lift, weight, drag, and thrust. Kites are no exception. Lift is the upward force that pushes a kite into the air, and weight is the downward force generated by the gravitational attraction of the Earth on the kite. Thrust is the forward force that propels a kite in the direction of motion, and drag is the backward force that acts opposite to the direction of motion.
Kites have flown with and without tails since their inception. According to Scientific American, adding a tail to a kite can help it fly more stably by adding weight and drag to its lower end. The key is to get the tail length just right since too short a tail will likely not be heavy enough, and too long a tail might prevent the kite from flying very high. A tail that measures around three to eight times the kite’s length should do the trick.
Make Your Own Kite
To craft a homemade kite for your next trip to the park or the beach, follow this simple two-step process that makes kite-flying fun for all ages, courtesy of Good Housekeeping.
You will need: a roll of clear contact paper, a ball of string, five plastic or paper straws, scissors, and ribbon.
Step 1: Connect two straws for the kite’s width and three for its length. Tie the straws together at the center with string. Cut the contact paper into two diamond shapes. Peel the backing off of one and place the sticky side up. Press the straws onto the paper.
Step 2: Stick tissue paper shapes all over, then top with the second diamond sheet. Loop the string around each corner, then tie them together for the bridle. Add a colorful ribbon tail for a fun flying detail!