Kite flying is one of the oldest pastimes in the world. No one can say with certainty precisely how old it is, but we do know that it goes back for many centuries, and that the beginnings of the story have an eastern setting. On the latter point, more will be said in a moment. In the meantime, this may be said. In its general significance, the invention of the kite stands out as an expression of man's age-old and universal longing to conquer the air.
It cannot be said with precision just how or when thoughts about flying began to occupy man's mind. What is known, however, is that from the time he began to write and to draw, the idea of flight was present; an idea which was born, no doubt, through watching the birds in their travels, doing what he himself could not do. The ability which he himself did not possess he bestowed upon the beings born of his imagination. In ancient stories of superhuman mastery of the elements, gods and devils transport themselves with wings, and men and beasts also navigate the air. Thus in one way or another man's interest in flight was sustained, and in the course of time this interest led to various attempts to achieve mastery of the air.
In the story of man's conquest of the air, kites have an important place. It cannot be said with certainty who invented them or when they were first flown. Ancient Greek tradition ascribes the invention to Archytas of Tarentum in the fourth century B.C. The Koreans attribute the origin of the kite to a general who, in the dim and distant past, put fresh courage into his troops by sending up a kite to which a lantern was fixed. They believed that it was a new star and a sign of divine help.
Above the mists of speculation the fourth century B.C. stands as a landmark. It is established that by this time kites were well-known in China. It is said that the first Chinese kites were probably made of wood. This could well be, though a case could be made out that they might have had a bamboo framework with a silk cover, since silk is said to have been used there as far back as 4,000 years ago. It is probable that by the fourth century this material was being used. About the year A.D. 105 the Chinese discovered a method of making paper sheets from vegetable fiber. This made available another suitable covering material.
When we turn to the purposes for which kites were used in those far-off days, much that is of interest may be noted. Ancient Chinese historians have recorded that they were employed to carry ropes across rivers and gorges. The ropes were made fast and wooden bridges suspended from them. It is said that a general of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 221) put the enemy to flight by flying musical kites over their camp at night. The enemy fled, because they believed that the music was the voices of their guardian angels, warning them of coming danger. There is a tradition, too, that man-lifting kites were used in attacks on cities, and to drop men behind enemy lines. It is difficult to say when this strategy was first employed, so no date can be given. It is known, however, that the Chinese and the Japanese used man-lifting kites to survey the enemy's position as early as the seventeenth century A.D.
There is a tradition that kites were known in Ancient Greece and Rome. One should not be too dogmatic on this point. On the other hand, taking fourth century China as the starting point, one may confidently trace the spread of kite flying all over Asia and beyond, extending to such countries as New Zealand. The Maoris are said to have fastened perforated reeds to their kites. It was believed that the sounds which they made would scare off evil spirits.
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