THE next time you're on a beach, look up. Chances are you'll see a bright, sassy kite dancing in the wind. If you see several swooping together like synchronized skydivers, you've spotted stunt kites. Or you might see a giant pair of legs kicking at the clouds. That's a flow-form kite. And if a crayon-colored serpent waves its tail at you, wave back. That's a dragon kite inviting you to join the fun.
Kites are hard to resist these days. Thanks to innovative designs, strong new fabrics for sails, and sturdy synthetic frames, they can soar higher, dive lower, and loop into acrobatic feats as never before. But kites don't have to be made of high-tech materials to fly well. For centuries people used silk and bamboo, or paper and sticks, to create all kinds of airworthy kites.
The first kite was probably invented in China more than 2,000 years ago. No one knows for sure who invented it. Some say it was a seaman watching a sail filled by the wind. Perhaps it was simply a girl holding her hat by its chin string on a breezy day. The inventor's name was soon forgotten, but the idea spread throughout China and beyond.
Chinese army generals used kites to signal their troops and with giant kites flew spies over their enemies. Malaysian fishermen created leaf-shaped kites to quietly sink their lines without scaring their prey. And in Korea, small kites were designed to loft love letters over garden walls.
All kites, whether they're large enough to hoist a human being or small enough to deliver a letter, are carried upward by a force called "lift." A kite needs enough lift to overcome gravity and a force called "drag." Drag is the resisting force against the kite as it moves forward.
To get a feel for how lift works, and how kites fly, put your hand into a strong wind. Keep your palm flat, with your fingers pointed directly into the flow. Now raise your fingers slightly. The deflected current will lift your hand. If your fingers move too far up, turbulence and the force of drag will begin to overpower the force of lift - and your "kite" will fall.
Some kites need long tails or several "bridles" to keep them angled correctly into the wind. A bridle is the string across the front of a kite that connects it to its flying line. Other kites rely more on their shape to keep them aloft and need no tail at all.
By the time kites reached America, almost 2,000 years after they were born, they had become the tool of scientists and inventors. Benjamin Franklin used one in his historic lightning and key experiment in 1752. (Kites should never be flown during a storm, by the way; it's very dangerous.)
In 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright's kite experiments led them to the creation of the world's first powered plane. The wing of their famous "Kitty Hawk" biplane, the invention that unfastened the gate to the space age, looks something like a long box kite.
Then there's the story - some would call it a tall tale - of Windwagon Smith. When Indians shot his horses, Smith got across the Sea of Grass in New Mexico by hitching his Conestoga wagon to a giant kite. Or so they say.
People don't use Conestogas any more, but kites are as popular as ever. Kite festivals, for instance, can be found in many parts of the world.
In Bermuda each Easter, thousands of kites are sent up and then released into the sky. The custom began long ago when a Sunday school teacher wanted to demonstrate Jesus' ascension. On Good Friday, he took his class to a beach where he launched a kite on which he'd painted a picture of Jesus. When the kite was sailing overhead, he cut the string. The kite rose higher and finally disappeared from sight. The lesson became a legend and then a national custom.
In Thailand, a different kind of festival is staged each spring. Two kites, flown by teams, battle each other for dominance of the skies in front of the royal palace in the capital city of Bangkok. A large star-shaped "male" kite competes with a smaller diamond-shaped "female" version. Each team tries to maneuver its kite so that its flying line crosses and finally cuts its opponent's strings.
Team-style kite battles, which have been popular in Asia for centuries, are also a growing sport in the United States. Many traditional kite festivals, which can be found in every part of the country, have added battles to their agendas in recent years.
To locate a festival in your area, contact the parks and recreation department or the chamber of commerce. Or if you can find a beach or an open field, build a newspaper-and-dowel kite and take to the skies on your own.
Use the plans on this page to construct a serpent kite. It's easy to make and easy to fly. After the serpent, you may want to try more complicated designs. Check your library. There are excellent books and magazines that explain how to build and fly kites. When you've mastered a few kites designed by other people, you may want to design one yourself.
After that, who knows where the winds will take you.
`Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.