Evolution of a Kite That Will Lift a Man

Captain B.F.S. Baden-Powell
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It is very remarkable how people pass by good inventions and good ideas and won’t take to them. Kites, for instance, have been known for hundreds of years. Everyone knows of them the world over, yet till a few years ago no one thought of putting them to any use. When I say no one, I do not mean that exactly, for Franklin and others, of course, used kites for meteorological experiments; Pocock drew a little carriage along with them, and several others suggested their use for life-saving at sea. But it has been only during the last three or four years that inventors have taken up this long neglected contrivance, and now we hear of remarkable kite experiments in many different countries. It is, however, of my own particular improvements that I write.

My first object was to get an idea of the capabilities of a kite for lifting weights. Naturally the lift depends on the strength of the wind; and I soon found that the wind varies so greatly in strength, that it is very difficult to get accurate working figures. One day I had a kite of some 20 feet up, and found that I could put stone after stone into the little bag hanging beneath, up to a total weight of six pounds, and not overweight the kite. I felt quite triumphant. On this basis, three-tenths pound per square foot, a kite of 500 square feet should lift a man. Thus encouraged, I worked all the harder. But I soon found that the kite is an awkward customer to deal with when you get on the wrong side of him. He can be very bad tempered, and often refuses to do what he is told. I had to devise new methods of construction in order to keep portable so huge an apparatus as I required. First, the tail required consideration (for I had been brought up to believe that a kite must have a long appendage of string with bits of paper tied along it at intervals). This tail was the bother of my life. The papers got wet and tore off. I substituted bits of stick. Then I thought it was not heavy enough, and added weights. Next, I imagined it did not have enough resistance to the wind, and I put on canvas cones. And, then, oh dear! The bother when that tail became entangled. Well, one day it was blowing very hard, and the kite would not fly steadily. I added more and more to the tail, till finally I put a great bush on the end of it. The kite went up, then dived over, and then circled round and round, the bush alternately sweeping the ground and the sky, until it nearly swept me off the face of the earth. At last I got the kite down, and sorrowfully took the whole tail off, determined to add still more length and weight. But a sudden gust came, and took the kite right out of my hands. Up it went, indecently tailless, and flitted about like a bat, though on the whole much steadier than it had been with the ponderous string of brushwood hanging from it. From that day I have rarely put a tail on a kite.

That was one great result. I went on improving details, but made no important step until March 1893, when, after trying a great many unsatisfactory arrangements for steering the kite out of the wind course, I hit upon the plan of having two flying lines, one on each side of the center. In this way, I found, I could not only steer my kite to a remarkable extent on either side of the wind course; but in a gusty, variable wind, I could, by fastening the two lines at a distance apart, keep the kite floating perfectly steady. I then returned to weight-lifting. After many trials, I was one day delighted to get a kite of about 100 square feet to lift a weight of 56 pounds clear of the ground. I now made the kites bigger and bigger until, in May l894, I had a huge contrivance of bamboo and canvas, 36 feet high, with an area of about 500 square feet. To get a sailmaker to piece together the lightest canvas for the cover was easy enough, but how to make the frame was the difficulty. To calculate the strain would be the way to begin, but what wind was I to allow for? If I made provision for a gale, my apparatus would weigh so much that no light breeze could lift it. So I began the other way. I got some light bamboos, lashed them together, and stretched the canvas on the framework. It rose majestically, quietly doubled up and collapsed, and sank to the ground a wreck. So I made a stronger framework, and sent the kite up by two cords, with a basket suspended between them.

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