It was a memorable, blustery day on the beach where he spent his fifth birthday. Especially because his favorite uncle, Edward, had made him a kite -- his very first one. Mesmerized, he watched it soar and dip under the older man's control. Carefully wrapping the line around his nephew's wrist, the uncle turned him loose and returned to the party. The little boy walked along the sand, the kite in tow. A strong gust came and lifted him off the ground, skimming into the surf.
"I was heading for Europe when Uncle Ed caught me and hauled me back in," says Paul Garber with a chuckle, his eyes twinkling as he warms to the memory. "He tied it to a stake and I sat there the rest of the day, entranced with that kite up in the air."
Seventy-five years later Paul Garber, historian emeritus for the Smithsonian and kitologist par excellence, is still hooked on kites.
And if you think they are just for fun, Garber is quick to point out that the noble kite has a distinguished place in aviation history.The first device the Wright Brothers made on the path to Kitty Hawk was a kite with three-axial control, in 1899. Before the invention of wind tunnels, flight pioneers used kites to test heady aerodynamic concepts, like aspect ratio or decalage.
The most popular hang glider was developed from a kite made by Francis Rogallo, an aeronautical engineer with the National Advisory Committee in Hampton, Va. Garber says the Weather Bureau has used kites since the 1890s to carry instruments to high altitudes. And everybody knows that Benjamin Franklin confirmed his theories about electricity using a kite and a brass key.
Kitophiles are apt to be interested in gliding, hang gliding, soaring, ballooning and planes, says Garber. He built his first glider from a kite he designed in 1915, and soloed that same year in an airplane. Like most aficionados Garber prefers to build his own kite because "there's some bit of you up there."
Bill Bigge, a physicist with the National Bureau of Standards, likes to design and fly kites because "when the wind is low I feel I'm interacting with it." Fascination with light winds led to his developing "The Janus," a no-wind kite that he expects will be marketed before long. Resembling a balsa wood plane more than a kite, its wings and tail are so well-balanced it glides forward and backward when the wind dies down.
While the attraction for Bigge is perfecting design and efficiency, Bevan Brown sees kites as an artistic outlet. A former Air Force pilot and amateur artist, Brown got inspired to make kites about 12 years ago when he attended a Smithsonian Kite Festival in Ft. Washington, Md. He started with bird kites, the most notable being an eagle that "flies like a homesick eagle" according to Bevan's wife, Margo. This powerful and graceful bird, with a 40-inch wingspread and piercing eyes is now on exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
After that Brown designed a carousel kite, which he describes as sculpture that flies. Four feet in diameter, it resembles an upside down umbrella with a circular cage beneath. In the center of the cage is a mirrored spindle and on its floor, animals on pinwheels. A hole in the top lets in air to make the figures rotate.
For the Bicentennial three years ago, Brown's carousel featured Paul Revere riding to warn the Minutemen of the British invasion. Old North Church served as spindle. For a competition in Ocean City, Md., last September he designed an eight-foot-wide carousel. It is the most ambitious to date -- animals rotate and go up and down as music plays. Brown plans to fly this one at the Smithsonian Kite Festival next weekend. He and his wife no longer enter their kites in competitions, preferring "to see what others are doing and offer assistance."
"We make eyecatching kites so more people will come to kiting," says Margo Brown, who is a schoolteacher and secretary of the American Kite Association. She believes that kite projects can be a panacea to a family's woe, easing tension and fostering better communication.
The Brown's two daughters also make and fly kites. Their designs include a replica of Star Trek's space ship Enterprise and a ship-in-a-bottle.
While it's enjoyable to make a kite that flies, Paul Garber insists that you learn more by making one that doesn't. Alignment and balance coupled with strength and lightness is what makes a kite go up and stay aloft. Tails are necessary for flatsurface kites because they give lateral stability, needed to keep them from going over sideways.
But bridling -- the cross string -- is the most important thing.
"Alexander Graham Bell taught me the importance of bridling," says Garber, who, as a child, lived a few doors up from the telephone inventor on Connecticut Avenue. "I was flying my kite and Dr. Bell came along, looked at my kite and reached up -- all six feet of him -- and pulled it down. He rebridled it, stepped out on the street and held it I gave it a jerk and up it went."
Garber's best kite adventure was during World War II when he served on the naval carrier "Block Island," as recognition officer, teaching gunners to distinguish between Allied and Axis airplanes. They shot at clouds for target practice. Garber built a simple three-stick barn kite and painted on it the face of the enemy thumbing his nose. The gunnery officer used it at the next target practice. It worked. Then Garber made a two-stringed kite that would be a more maneuverable target, like airplanes. The captain liked this one even better.
Pretty soon Garber was in Washington demonstrating his target kites, relieved of ship duty and in charge of manufacturing them for the Atlantic and Pacific forces.
"It actually saved a ship one time because they were practicing with the kites and enemy planes approached," he says. "Since the gunners were in their gun tubs already, they just swung around and fired away."
But saving lives is nothing new for the fearless kite. During the 19th century people experimented with kites to devise ship-to-shore rescue lines. One of the more successful was C. Jobert's in France. Hardly a traditional design, it had a cone with a plane surface attached beneath. At a 30 degree angle, the kite had the stability to hover at about 130 feet while pulling heavy cables in a strong wind.
The kite's origins are vague.But most kitologists agree that it probably was invented in China at least 2,500 years ago. Garber ventures that they got the idea by seeing a leaf dangling about in a spider's web. And kites are found in virtually every culture all over the world.
In Borneo and the East Indies kites traditionally are woven with strips of leaves in a reed frame, oval-shaped and pointed at the top with a long pendant line. Natives attach a spider's web at the bottom and fly the kites over water with the tail barely skimming the surface. The greedy fish, mistaking the tail for an edible delicacy and the circling kite for a hungry bird, charge up and get their gills caught in the web.
Garber says that in Viet Nam kites shaped like big birds are flown in fields to scare smaller birds away from the rice crops. One of his favorite stories is about a Christian missionary in Bermuda who was trying to explain the Resurrection at Easter time. The language barrier proved too great so he made a kite in Jesus' image. The missionary flew it farther and higher until he cut the lines and it disappeared in the clouds.
Charming it is, with a kite aloft in a stiff breeze. But there are dangers. A collision with a power line can fry the kitophile or bring lines down and disrupt telephone or electric service. Two years ago in Santa Barbara, Calif., a green-and-yellow kite shaped like an hour glass and intended to set an altitude record, hit a power line, incinerating 234 homes.
Kites with metal lines have been known to sever airplane wings. In England, it is against the law to fly any kites higher than 200 feet. And don't bother to launch one near an airport in Indonesia because authorities are convinced the nylon lines could jam airplane engines.
From 1892 until 1970 it was against the law to fly kites in Washington, Garber says, because of too many spooked horses and fallen telegraph lines. The law also forbade paper-balloon launching and playing "bandy" or "shinny," two stick-and-rock games that probably broke a fair share of human heads and windows.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has proposed a ban on aluminized polyester film coatings in any kite using 10 inches or more of the metalized material, which is highly conductive of electricity. This is dangerous if the kite becomes entangled in powerlines. Dragon, box and fighter kites are particularly susceptible. No injuries or deaths have been directly attributed to this coating. But there have been many reports of hazardous situations, including two incidents in San Francisco which broke high voltage conductors. The CPSC says most kite manufacturers have stopped using the aluminizing process in kite production.
But any kitophile will tell you that the good memories outweigh the handful of kite tragedies. For Paul Garber the most touching kite adventure happened during World War II, en route to Portsmouth, Va., with a shipboard target kite in tow. The children at the playground flying kites there were surprised to see a 50-year-old man get his out and launch it with the best of them.
"There was one little boy in a wheelchair and I handed him the controls and showed him what to do," says Garber. "He called to his mother, 'Look, Mamma! I can't walk but I can fly.'
"I walked away with tears streaming down my face. Now that's a beautiful memory."