Kites Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A heavier-than-air, flexible, fabric structure or lightweight, covered frame flown at the end of a long line.

History and Evolution

Kites have played a special role in the folklore, legend, art, recreation, and religious ceremony of many cultures. As the first heavier-than-air flight vehicle, the kite also has been used in science and military applications.

The first documented evidence suggests kites originated in China more than 2,500 years ago. Originally constructed from bamboo and silk, kites became more widespread with the development of inexpensive paper in the second century c.e. Buddhist missionaries most likely introduced the kite to Japan and Korea, from where it spread to Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula. By the year 700, kites had been introduced to the Middle East and were used in recreation and in a sport known as “fighting kites.” The explorer Marco Polo noted seeing both kite flying and crewed kites in thirteenth century Asia. Through trade routes, kites reached Europe in the early Middle Ages and were brought to the United States from both Europe and Asia.

Military Uses

Over its long history, kites have been used by militaries around the world to signal, carry messages and food to troops, to carry out crewed aerial observations, and for rescue. About 200 b.c.e., a Chinese general attached a humming device to a kite. When it was flown overhead at night, the enemy, believing the sounds came from evil spirits preparing to attack, fled. Another Chinese general used a kite to measure the distance between his troops and an enemy palace. Early Japanese prints depict archers carried by large kites.

In the mid- to late 1800’s, kites were used by the British military. In 1897, a young officer, Captain B. F. S. Baden-Powell, built a 36-foot kite to be used for crewed aerial observations over enemy territory. Baden-Powell also developed a series of tandem kites. In 1901, Samuel F. Cody patented a kite system for crewed observations; the system included a basket which could support the weight of a person. Although further major developments in crewed kite flight were stunted by the introduction of crewed powered flight by the Wright brothers in 1903, the Germans used crewed aerial observation kites from submarines in World War I and World War II.


Kites have been used in scientific investigations of climate and weather, aerodynamics, and electricity. In 1752, statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin used a kite for his famous investigation into the nature of electrical charges in clouds. Kites have been used in climatic and meteorological studies. The U.S. Weather Bureau has used large box-type kites flown on piano wire that have reached altitudes over 31,000 feet. A variety of meteorological instruments, such as thermometers, anemometers, and barometers, have been attached to kites to investigate temperature, wind speed, and pressure differences at different altitudes.

Sir George Cayley, who developed the first practical glider, flew those gliders as kites. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, used kites to study weather and to understand flight. He developed the tetrahedral cell, a strong, light-framed kite capable of supporting a person in the air. Early aviation pioneers such as Otto Lilienthal, Octave Chanute and the Wright brothers used kites to experiment with and learn about forces, stability, and control. The Wright’s early airplane attempts were flown as kites.

Cultural Importance

Throughout many centuries and cultures, kites have been used in recreation, religious ceremony, celebration, hunting and fishing, sports, and as art. Throughout the world, kite festivals are held annually. These events educate participants and teach kite building and flying, as well as providing an exciting recreational activity.

From the time of the kite’s invention, early Chinese drawings depict elegantly sculptured and beautifully decorated kites. Some cultures have used kites to communicate with spirits or gods. In Thailand, kites have been used to ask the gods for good weather and crops. In some cultures, kites are associated with good luck. It is believed when the line of the kite is cut, the kite takes away bad luck or evil spirits. In Japan, one form of kite, called a windsock, is made in the shape of a carp fish, which symbolizes the strength and will to overcome great obstacles. In ancient Rome, windsock banners designed to look like dragons were used for military and religious purposes. Koreans fly kites to announce the birth of a child. European hunters used kites to flush birds from bushes. In the Solomon Islands, kites have been used in fishing.

In the late 1990’s, a new extreme sport, kite boarding, was introduced in Europe and spread rapidly throughout the world. Large, harnessed kites pull individuals on boards, similar to surf boards, across water or even snow. At the highest competitive level, professional athletes perform exciting acrobatics with these kites.

Kite Flight

Kites, like other flight vehicles, have different shapes, sizes, and components based on the mission or type of work the kite will perform. Although the variations are endless, basic forms include flat, bowed, box, cellular, and semirigid or nonrigid (soft fabric shape). Regardless of the shape, for a kite to fly, the aerodynamic forces of lift, drag, and the kite’s weight must be balanced. The movement of air across the kite’s surfaces provides the pressure to balance the kite’s forces. Extensions to the kite, such as tails, drogue cups, or cones, add stability and balance to the kite.

  • Wiley, Jack, and Suzanne L. Cheatle. Dynamic Kites. 2d ed. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1988. This book describes the basic aerodynamics of kites with extensive information regarding the design, materials, and construction of a wide range of kites.
  • Thomas, Bill, The Complete World of Kites. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1977. Very through and comprehensive treatment of the history and uses of kites throughout many cultures.
  • Morgan, Paul, and Helene Morgan. The Ultimate Kite Book. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Beautifully illustrated and photographed, this book reviews the history of kites and clearly describes the technical differences between the wide variety of modern kites.


Octave Chanute

Forces of flight

Heavier-than-air craft

History of human flight

Wright brothers

The Wright brothers first tested their gliders by flying them as kites before experimenting with engines. Here Orville andWilbur Wright fly a glider in September, 1900.

(Hulton Archive)
Categories: History Content