Human Carrying Kites Of The 1890s

Originally published in The Smithfield Times magazine, April, 2023

Human Carrying Kites of the 1890s

By Jim Ignasher

     Can you imagine yourself standing in the middle of an electrical storm, rain pelting your face, gusty winds howling, and instead of an umbrella, you’re holding a kite? Me either, but apparently Benjamin Franklin did just that on June 10, 1752. Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t trying to “discover” electricity, but rather was attempting to illustrate that lightning was an electrical discharge. And by the way, his kite was never actually hit by lightning, for if it had, Ben would have been toast.

     The experiment led Franklin to invent the lightning rod for the protection of tall structures, but this wasn’t the only time in history that kites were utilized for practical and scientific purposes.

     The origin of the kite dates to ancient times, and they’ve been produced in various sizes and shapes over the centuries.

     Franklin wasn’t the only one to recognize their potential when it came to uses other than toys. One example was Professor J. Woodbridge Davis, of New York, who incorporated the kite in rescuing survivors from shipwrecks. His idea was to utilize a large six-pointed-star shaped kite to carry a line out to stranded ships foundering off shore. In April of 1893, he tested his idea when a kite was launched from the Brenton Reef Lightship off the Rhode Island Coast. The 25 mph wind easily carried it to shore a mile-and-a-half away, and the whole experiment took forty-one minutes.

     In 1895 the Boston Aeronautical Society was founded at the Blue Hills observatory in Milton, Massachusetts. It was there that kite experiments were carried out as a way to study meteorology and aeronautics. It was hoped that the society’s kite designs might lead to airships capable of transporting humans. In one experiment conducted on July 21, 1896, a number of kites strung in tandem reached the amazing altitude of 7,200 feet – a world record for the time.

     One member of the society was William A. Eddy of New Jersey, inventor of the “Eddy Kite”. On May 30, 1895, he took the first kite-aerial-photograph by operating the attached camera remotely from the ground. In August of 1896 he took several aerial pictures of Boston, some taken from as high as 1,500 feet.

     In the autumn of 1896, meteorological instruments were attached to a series of newly developed kites strung together to study high altitude weather. These kites reportedly reached an altitude of 9,000 feet!

     While some studied weather, others envisioned kites large enough to carry an adult human. In 1902, several newspapers carried the story of a Boston couple, Daniel Rice, Jr., and his wife Almenia, who did just that. Both had been circus performers, he a clown, and she a balloonist – aeronaut. In the summer of 1901 he’d constructed a kite made of wood and canvas that was fourteen feet tall and fourteen feet wide, capable of lifting his 125 pound wife. The apparatus reportedly made its successful inaugural flight from the roof of a hotel at 144 Tremont Street in Boston, however Mrs. Rice was not aboard, and instead the kite carried a weight of 125 pounds.

     Mrs. Rice eventually flew in her kite, thus making her what the press called “the first woman in the world to navigate the air with a kite as a craft.”

     Another member of the Boston Aeronautical Society was Charles H. Lamson of Maine who constructed a massive kite known as “The Lamson Airship”, capable of carrying a 150 pound person. In August of 1896 he sent it aloft carrying a human dummy. Unfortunately the wire broke when the kite reached 600 feet, but he’d set a new record for the largest kite ever flown, and the heaviest weight to the highest altitude by a kite.

     What made Lamson’s Airship unique was that he’d installed levers to control the “wings”, thereby allowing the “pilot” to control the descent and land safely should the wire connecting the kite to the ground suddenly break.

     There were others who experimented with human-lifting kites such as the United States military. The military saw the practical applications for forward observers and artillery spotters who would no longer be required to find high ground or tall structures to report enemy movements. The army had been using balloons for such purposes since the American Civil War, but kites were easier to transport and deploy. However, the advent of airplanes made the whole idea obsolete.

     Kites large enough to carry human cargo require a lot of area to gain the required lift, and those mentioned here pale in comparison to what is said to be the largest kite in the world; the Al Majd Kite, which flew in Beijing, China, in 2018. It has a massive 8,769 square feet of fabric, and is 216.5 feet long by 131.2 feet wide.

     Something to ponder the next time you fly a kite.


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