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No. 340:
Man Flying Kites

Today, we learn to trust our dreams. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Kites appeared in the Western world just 400 years ago. But Chinese kite flying is 2500 years old. The Chinese made every kind of kite long before Marco Polo came. They made communication kites, propaganda leaflet kites, whistling kites, Buddhist contemplation object kites. We even find aerodynamic theories for kites. Sooner or later, this had to result in manned kites.

But how it did! The first recorded human flight comes down from the terrible reign of the 6th-century Emperor, Kao Yang. During an early purge, Yang used an aerodynamic experiment to kill his enemies. He fitted them with bamboo mat wings and threw them off a tower to see if they could fly. None could, but they gave their Emperor a nice day's entertainment.

And he was fascinated. Maybe he'd have better luck flying them to earth in kites controlled from the ground. He put his next round of victims in large kites and let their relatives handle the cables. One prisoner, Yuan Huang-T'ou, got safely to earth. So his sentence was commuted to death by starvation. The unhappy Yuan might well have been the first human to fly.

By the 13th century, the Taoist monks had made man-carrying kites into a common technology. Marco Polo told about a bizarre practice among Chinese sailors preparing to leave port. They would, in his words, find "a fool or a drunk." They'd tie him into a kite and launch him from the ship. If he flew straight up, it was a good omen for the voyage. If he failed to rise, no merchant would load his wares onto that boat.

The first European who flew in a kite was a man named Baden-Powell. He succeeded in 1894 -- 1300 years after Yuan had delayed his own execution by flying.

The story of Chinese flight is a story of human ingenuity, all right, but it's not a nice one. Real flight had to wait for the West. When Montgolfier and Rozier were ready for the first manned balloon ascent, King Louis said they could use convicts for their experiment. If the prisoners lived, they'd be pardoned. Rozier exploded, "What, and give this glory to a criminal! He persuaded a friend of Marie Antoinette's to persuade her to persuade the king. In the end, it was Rozier who flew.

Read the roll-call of Western pioneers of flight: Giffard, Lilienthal, Chanute, Wright -- they all rode their own machines. And that's the difference. Many died trying. But they flew because they themselves hungered to shake off the earth. And they trusted their lives to their dreams.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Temple, R., The Genius of China. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986, Chapter 9.