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Manned Kite Flight in Medieval China May 13, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

**This post is dedicated to Ricardo R. who put Beachcombing onto the Chinese kite**

School’s out for ever! Well actually just for ten days before the summer students arrive and another course  is pushed off the cliff… Still for now it feels like for ever and Beachcombing is properly grateful. So much so that he thought he would conjure up an old friend, Marco Polo.

MP while in China allegedly came across a peculiar kite ritual. Before a merchant ship went on a journey a kite was – MP claims – sent up into the air as an augury. Fair enough only these were giant kites with men attached…

The men of the ship will have wicker framework, that is a grate of switches, and to each corner and side of that framework will be tied a cord, so that there are eight cords and all of these are tied at the other end to a long rope. Next they will find some fool or drunkard and lash him to the frame, since no one in his right mind or with his wits about him would expose himself to that peril. This is done when the wind is high, then they raise the framework into the teeth of the wind and the wind lifts up the framework and carries it aloft, and the men hold it by the long rope. If the kite tips the men on the ground haul on the rope to straighten it, then pay the rope out again so by this means it might go up until it could no longer be seen, if only the rope were long enough.

Homines uero nauis habebunt unam cratem, id est unum graditum de uiminibus, et in quolibet angulo et latere ipsius cratis erit ligata una funis ita quod erit octo funes, et omnes ligate erunt ab alio capite cum una sartia longa. Item inuenient aliquem stultum uel ebrium et ipsum ligabunt super cratem, quia nullus sapiens nec sincerus ad periculum illud se exponeret. Et hoc fit quando uentus regnat intensus. Ipsi quidem errigunt cratem in opositum uenti, et uentus cratem eleuat et portat ipsam in altum, et homines per sartiam longam tenent. Et si cratis dum est in aere uersus cursum uenti declinet, ipsi aliquantulum sartiam ad se trahunt, et tunc cratis erigitur et ipsi sartie cedunt et cratis ascendit. Et si iterum declinet, tanto sartiam trahunt donec cratis erigitur et ascendit, et ipsi sartie cedunt, ita quod per hunc modum tantum ascenderet quod uideri non posset, dummodo foret sartia tam longa. [Latin added after 28 July 2011, this passage in problematic in MP as it only appears in a minor part of the MP tradition. The consensus is, nevertheless, that it is genuine.]

And you thought that the Montgolfier brothers were the first to leave the tawdry ground behind? Pah!

Beachcombing would like to give some information on survival rates. But MP is completely indifferent. He only tells us that if the kite soars the voyage would go well, whereas if the kite failed to soar the voyage would go badly. In either case it seems unlikely that the ‘fool or drunkard’ (who rapidly achieved sobriety Beachcombing suspects) would come out of the adventure with his bones intact. Memories of French plans – not carried through as it happens – to put up prisoners in the first manned balloon trip or those poor primates who were packed into the earliest space-crafts.

Did Marco Polo actually see the ritual or was this just hearsay?

With MP you never know: there is after all a vociferous minority that claim that MP never even made it to China. But apart from the unpleasant human connotations of the kite flight there is surely no physical reason for thinking that it could not have happened. There were certainly later European experiments in man flight by kite.

Any other pre-Wright and interesting episodes in the history of flight: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Beachcombing will end by saying that this summer he plans to write a *serious* article with a quotation from Marco Polo but is becoming increasingly perturbed at what seems to be the lack of a good critical edition. Any advice?


18 May 2011: Manned Kite Flight: Roy S. has written in reminding Beachcombing of an other early flight pioneer. Beachcombing hopes to visit Eilmer later in the summer. ‘There is a somewhat well documented pre-Polo (and thus pre-Wright) attempt at flying, which may have sparked other such attempts in the middle ages.  Eilmer of Malmesbury attempted to fly in England in the 11th century.  He was perhaps the first ‘tower jumper’ who attempted to fly by leaping off a very high place with devices attached to the legs and arms.  For the majority of those who attempted bird-like flight from high places, their attempts ended in death or severe injury, or at the very least great humiliation.  When Eilmer leapt from the highest point in the Abbey with his gliding device, he managed to cover around 200 meters successfully.  Whether it was due to panic or stiff winds at the end, his landing was nowhere near as successful as the ‘flight’.  Eilmer suffered two broken legs.  Some believe his failed landing was due to Eilmer attempting to flap his arms like a bird near the end of his flight. Eilmer planned a second flight (and thought a tail might provide the stability he needed to land successfully), but the Abbot forbade him from making another attempt.’ Thanks Roy!!!

26 May 2011: Moonman here sends in a consideration from the work of the always interesting William R. Corliss, Archaeological Anomalies: Small Artefacts, p. 286 ‘Kites – even very large ones – are more than 1500 years old. Chinese records tell of attempts to launch man-carrying kites circa 559 AD. Of course, kites per se are nonanomalous but it is remotely possible that giant kites may have been used in lifting operations by the ancient Egyptians. M. Clemmons, an aeronautics professor at the California Institute of Technology, has suggested that the ancient Egyptians employed huge kites to help them raise obelisks  and also to slide multi-ton stone blocks into place during pyramid construction. No one doubts that large kites in a strong wind can exert powerful forces, especially when the mechanical advantage of a pulley-system is added. Indeed, Clemmons has actually built a 40-square meter kite with which he has erected small test obelisks. Clemmons’ engineering is faultless – at least on a small scale – but artefacts such as pulley systems, suggesting the use of huge kites in building the pyramids has been found so far. However, at least one hieroglyphic inscription does seem to show a kite aloft with control lines held by a force of workers below.’ WC naturally includes full references. Thanks Moonman!!