Perhaps one of the most famous uses of a kite was that of Benjamin Franklin in 1752, when he tied a key onto a kite string in a thunderstorm while proving lightning was a cause of electricity.

As the breezes of early spring blow into March, one’s mind turns to flying kites.
What is the history of kites, and why do we fly them? It all began in Asia, particularly China, and had many versatile uses through the years.
Kites were invented in Asia, most likely China. Materials such as silk, used for the “sail” and string, were plentiful and aided in the construction of the air-worthy item.
Earlier kites, from B.C. Chinese philosophers, such as Mozi and Gongshu Ban, around 549 A.D., were using paper when flying kites. The earliest known Chinese kites were flat and often shaped like a rectangle.
Early kites were used for messaging, measuring distances, signaling, testing wind directions and military operations, such as placement of troops.
Kites were decorated, in those early days of China, with military motifs and mythological tales.
Sometimes, depending upon their use, they were fitted with whistles and other objects, that, when flown, would whistle in the wind or make sound, probably to locate them, and to signal.
They would also make musical sounds when flying, a whimsy that was purely aesthetic in nature. Eventually the kite concept made its way into India, where it was used in festivals and as a celebratory object to honor religious deities.
Kites also made their way into New Zealand and Polynesia in these early times, utilized as a festival object and in religious ceremonies, the idea being that the kite got closer to the Gods in the sky. Anthropomorphic kites were also used, in every shape and size, depicting animals and deities of all sorts, to send prayers to the Gods and represent belief systems.
Although the Romans had a wind-sock type of kite for decorative purposes and amusement, it was Marco Polo who brought stories of kites to Europe at the end of the 13th century, and they were also brought back by sailors to Europe from their exploits to strange and exotic lands, such as Japan and Malaysia. Initially used for décor and entertainment, they were also used for scientific research and other cognitive uses by the 16th and 17th centuries.
Perhaps one of the most famous experiments and practical scientific uses for kites was that of the kite experiment used by Benjamin Franklin in 1752, the famous lightning/key experiment where Mr. Franklin tied a key onto a kite string in a thunderstorm, set the kite afloat, let lightning strike the kite and key, and proved lightning was a cause of electricity.
The “Golden Age of Kiting” was a phrase coined for the period of experimentation and celebration of the kite from the time period of 1860 to 1915.
The Wright brothers had used kites as initial experiments for flight, man-lifting kites were being developed, and scientific research was used for flight purposes, and for military potential. It was a time of discover and innovation, and it involved the kite as a tool.
Rapid development of flying machines, such as powerful aircraft and mechanical superiority of the skies caused diminished interest in kites.
World War II did utilize kites for military purposes, but the aircraft and more superior flying machines replaced the kite’s usefulness as a key component of serious usage for military or ground/troop operations.
In modern times, the kite is used for décor, collecting, sport and artistry, but it is also used for scientific purposes, meteorology, aeronautics, photography and many wireless communication purposes.
Hang gliding, parachuting and paragliding can all thank the kite for their beginnings.
Kites are now made from lightweight, modern materials, such as nylon and plastic film, as well as carbon fibers. Synthetic materials such as rope and cord complete the modern materials list for kites, a far cry from the world’s earliest kites made from crude rice paper and silk.
Kites engaged early civilization’s realization we could touch the skies with an item we constructed, and they sparked the imagination of religious followers who could get closer to their Gods and Goddesses.
Kites aided in scientific research, experiments, the Golden Age of Flight, and military strength in some of the world’s biggest wars.
The kite still exists today, to catch the wind, and perhaps still fuel our imagination to touch the sky and go where our flightless bodies cannot go alone.
(Editor’s note: DeeDee Wood is the store manager at Tharpe Antiques, in Easton, part of the Talbot Historical Society.)