Forgotten History of kites are ideally suited for this time of social distancing and quarantine. Hours can be spent with this relaxing past time and kite flying is a great way to enjoy the spring like temperatures. A visit to Tumbleweeds and Tarantulas is all you need to get started. But did you know that not so long ago kites were an integral component in the development of meteorological sciences?
One of the earliest recorded uses of a kite in atmospheric studies dates to 1749. In a series of European experiments a kite was used to carry aloft a thermometer to document altitude related temperature changes. Shortly after this Benjamin Franklin initiated some of the first meteorological experiments in the American colonies with the use of a kite. Myth has overshadowed truth in the story but Franklin did conduct some rather dangerous experiments by flying a kite into thunderstorms to better understand the electrical nature of lightening. By 1785 the kite was joined by hot air and hydrogen balloons in atmospheric studies as French scientists ascended into the sky with barometers, thermometers, and other instrumentation.
The use kites, however, continued to be a predominate tool for observing the upper-atmosphere well into the early 20th century. The United States Weather Bureau, now the National Weather Service, established kite stations throughout the United States in the years following the American Civil War. By 1890 the stations were well equipped with kites that carried meteorological instruments that recorded barometric pressure, temperature, and relative humidity data on a clockwork driven chart recorder.
By the end of the 1800’s, meteorographs had developed to a point where they could be carried aloft by free, unmanned balloons. Such soundings reached the stratosphere that was a much greater height than that achieved with manned balloons or kites. After the balloon burst, the meteorograph returned to Earth and preserved the recorded data for days or weeks until it was found. The major drawback to this sounding approach was that the data was not readily available for weather forecasting and was lost if the meteorograph could not be recovered. A means of solving this problem was keeping the balloon captive, but this limited the maximum altitude that could be achieved.
Surprisingly kite stations and official kite observation continued to 1933 in the United States even though increasingly aircraft were used for high altitude observation. To supplement data obtained from kites, and later aircraft, Weather Bureau stations in 1909 began to track small, pilot balloons with an optical theodolite to determine high altitude wind speed and direction. To aid in tracking a small light was attached at night. As an historic footnote during this period there was a dramatic rise in the reporting of unidentified flying objects.
Forgotten History of the lonely kite may be an opportunity to revisit the joys of childhood. And in this time of crisis it might be a therapeutic tool. There was, however, a time when the kite was a crucial tool for the scientist trying to unravel the mysteries of heaven above.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America