In the history of flight, the first lighter-than-air balloon (1783) and the first powered aircraft (1903) are very recent when compared with the age of kites.
The exact date and origin of the kite is not known but it is believed that they were flown in China more than two thousand years ago. One legend suggests that when a Chinese farmer tied a string to his hat to keep it from blowing away in a strong wind, the first kite was born.
The earliest written account of kite flying was about 200 B.C. when the Chinese General Han Hsin of the Han Dynasty flew a kite over the walls of a city he was attacking to measure how far his army would have to tunnel to reach past the defenses. Knowing this distance his troops reached the inside of the city, surprised their enemy, and were victorious.
Kite flying was eventually spread by traders from China to Korea, and across Asia to India. Each area developed a distinctive style of kite and cultural purpose for flying them.
During the Silla Dynasty of Korea around the year 600, General Gim Yu-sin was ordered to subdue a revolt. However, his troops refused to fight. They had seen a large shooting star fall from the sky and believed it to be a bad omen. To regain control, the General used a large kite to carry a fire ball into the sky. The soldiers, seeing the star return to heaven, rallied and defeated the rebels.
Kites were brought to Japan about the 7th century by Buddhist monks. They were used to avert evil spirits and to insure rich harvests.
Kite flying became very popular in Japan during the Edo period. For the first time Japanese people below the samurai class were allowed to fly kites. The Edo (now Tokyo) government tried unsuccessfully to discourage this pastime as “too many people became unmindful of their work.”
According to one story, about 300 years ago a thief was said to use a large kite to carry himself to the top of Nagoya Castle in order to steal a golden statue from the roof. All he was able to remove were a few small pieces. Later he was captured and punished severely when he bragged of his exploits.
The earliest evidence of Indian kite flying comes from miniature paintings from the Mogul Period around 1500. A favorite theme was of a young man skillfully using his kite to drop messages to a lover who was being held in strict seclusion from him and the rest of the world.
There are many stories about how the people of Micronesia used leaf kites to carry bait far out over the water where the gar-fish fed. The Polynesians have myths about two brother gods introducing kites to man when they had a kite duel. The winning brother flew his kite the highest. There are still contests in the islands where the highest flying kite is dedicated to the gods.
Marco Polo carried stories of kites to Europe around the end of the 13th century. Illustrations of the period show non-flying dragon kites on military banners. Sailors also brought kites back from Japan and Malaysia in the 16th and 17th centuries. Kites were regarded as curiosities at first and had little impact on European culture.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, kites were used as vehicles and tools for scientific research.
Men like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Wilson used their knowledge of kite flying to learn more about the wind and weather. Sir George Caley, Samuel Langley, Lawrence Hargrave, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Wright Brothers all experimented with kites and contributed to development of the airplane.