The Highest Heights

It was the National Trust's Kite Festival last weekend, which meant that the skies were lit up with gusts of colour at Dunstable Downs and the Whipsnade Estate in England all afternoon. Inspired by the festivities, we've delved deep into our archives, all the way back to issue no. 6, to unveil Beth Smith's article on the history of flying high...

Great minds think alike, and current thinking suggests that kites may have been independently invented in both China and Malaysia. They were being flown in China as long ago as 200 BC. Various legends relate the use of kites as an instrument of war by a general in the Han dynasty, either as a method of determining distance, lifting observers to spy upon the enemy before battle or to lift fireworks in order to terrify them. More peacefully, the people of the South Sea Islands used kites to fish, attaching bait to the tail of the kite and a web to catch their supper. In some Asian countries kites had considerable religious significance. In Korea, babies had kites released for them, taking away bad luck: while in Thailand farmers flew kites during the Monsoon to ask the gods to prevent flooding.

Kites were introduced to Europe by explorers returning from Asia. The first known reference to kite flying in Europe appears in a manuscript about military technology, written in 1405, but by the 18th century the kite had demonstrated its usefulness as a scientific instrument. In 1749 Scottish meteorologist Alexander Wilson used kites to measure temperature variations at altitude, and three years later Benjamin Franklin used a kite to prove that lightning was an electric current travelling from the ground to the storm cloud. In 1833, a British meteorologist, E. D. Archibold, used kites to lift anemometers to measure wind speed. For decades afterwards meteorological observatories around the world used kites to provide information about the atmosphere and – although some may disagree – vastly improve weather forecasts.

Sir George Cayley experimented with kites in a quest to develop a flying machine. In 1853 he developed a full sized glider that briefly supported the weight of an adult man. In doing so he developed a body of knowledge – including the identification of the separate properties of lift, thrust and drag which helped the Wright brothers overcome widespread scepticism and fly an aeroplane of their own design in 1903…

You can read this article in full in Selvedge issue 6.

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