MORE THAN A TOY (August 9/96)

The three men who drove by when my grandson and I were launching a kite in a dykeland field must have seen something humorous. “Grow up, man,” one shouted, laughing. “You’re to old for kid’s stuff,” another taunted with a cackle.

Their actions weren’t surprising. Most people associate kite flying with kids and look on the kite as a toy.

However, people with this mindset and the bumpkins who found me amusing would change their minds about kites if they were familiar with the experiments of Alexander Graham Bell. Or if they happened to be in Japan or Korea when the centuries-old kite fighting competitions are taking place.

People have been flying kites for over 2,000 years. Beginning with the Chinese, who are believed to have flown kites as early as 400 BC, kites spread through the Pacific region, reaching Europe just before the Middle Ages.

Over the centuries the kite has been used in warfare, in religious ceremonies and in scientific experiments, which included investigation of the kite’s potential for transportation on land and sea. The Chinese were the first to put manned kites into the sky. Several years ago I discovered a fascinating book on ancient Chinese inventions, which included the parachute and kerosene, by the way. This book (The Genius of China) revealed that writings from the fourth century described manned kites that ascended thousands of feet into the air.

In warfare the ancient Chinese used kites to rocket bomb opposing armies and even to brainwash them. In the battle a Chinese general dropped kites with messages on Mongol soldiers. Later attempts by the Romans to gain advantage by flying kites over opposing armies seem mild compared to Chinese tactics. However, the Romans may also have used fire spitting kites in warfare, an idea perfected first by the Chinese.

After the kite reached Europe experimenters built models capable of transporting people. An Englishman, George Pocock, devised kite-drawn carriages early in the 19th century that carried five people and reached a speed of 30 km/hr. Alexander Graham Bell experimented with a series of kites while investigating manned flight, inventing the tetrahedral kite in the process. And as recently as World War Two, Germany experimented with manned kites as submarine spotters.

In other words, even though there’s a childlike pleasure in flying a kite, it isn’t a toy – even though the only place reasonably priced kites can be found is department store toy sections.

I knew nothing about man’s long involvement and deep passion for kite flying when I decided to introduce my grandson to it last summer. Our first experiments were disastrous; so disastrous that I scoured stores and libraries for books on kites, discovering the fascinating history of kite flying in the process.

I also quickly learned that cheap kites crash often and don’t fly all that well. Beware the one- and two-dollar bargain basement models if you’re ever tempted to try kite flying. You are better off to build your own kite, which I’m currently attempting to do even though I’m as good handyman as my dog is a house painter.

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