Double Take: Let’s Go Fly a Kite!

While browsing through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, the title of this photograph made me stop and take a closer look.

5 Perkins kites holding up a man at the Harvard Aviation Field. Photo, 1910 September. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51642

5 Perkins kites holding up a man at the Harvard Aviation Field. Photo, 1910 September. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51642

Upon closer scrutiny, I realized that attached to the rope beneath the kite was a person! With my curiosity piqued, I decided to find out more about this man-flying contraption.

An avid kite lover since childhood, Samuel F. Perkins began experimenting with creating a man-flying kite to be used for observation about 1910. A lead kite was used to test the wind followed by enough kites to raise a person from the ground. The cable, attached to a winch, could be reeled in or out by the ground crew. Photography was a powerful tool for documenting and communicating aerial feats, triumphs, and disasters to the public. Below is a photograph of Perkins himself testing his new invention in November 1910.

Samuel F. Perkins on Broad St., Philadelphia, Nov. 10th, 1910 - just going up, First special permit ever granted in any American city, for man carrying kites. Photo, 1910 Nov. 10. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51641

Samuel F. Perkins on Broad St., Philadelphia, Nov. 10th, 1910 – just going up, First special permit ever granted in any American city, for man carrying kites. Photo, 1910 Nov. 10. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.51641

Perkins continued his experiments through the next decade with the biggest issue being instability. The slightest change of wind would cause the kites to lose control. It seems that even surviving a 150-200 foot fall in 1912 was not enough to curb Perkins’ enthusiasm for kite flying!

Many in Europe were also experimenting with man-flying observation kites during this period as a way to survey battlefields in World War I. More stable than the Perkins kite, the photographs below show a British army war kite taken during the same era.

British army war kite. Photo by Bain News Service, between 1911 and 1920. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b38436

British army war kite. Photo by Bain News Service, between 1911 and 1920. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b38436

British army war kite. Photo by Bain News Service, between 1911 and 1920. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b38436

British army war kite. Photo by Bain News Service, between 1911 and 1920. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b38436

Kite inventions in the early 1900s were not limited to those that could lift a person into the air. Can you determine the use of the kites in the following photographs?

Alexander Graham Bell (right) and his assistants observing the progress of one of his tetrahedral kites. Photo, 1908 July 7. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.00887

Alexander Graham Bell (right) and his assistants observing the progress of one of his tetrahedral kites. Photo, 1908 July 7. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.00887 (Read more about Bell’s kite experiments)

Wireless telegraphy kite. Photo copyrighted by Waldon Fawcett, 1906. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a45274

Wireless telegraphy kite. Photo copyrighted by Waldon Fawcett, 1906. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a45274

Capt. Farnsworth's Kite Tuna Catcher, Inv. 1906. Photo copyrighted by Geo. Farnsworth, 1911. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a50136

Capt. Farnsworth’s Kite Tuna Catcher, Inv. 1906. Photo copyrighted by Geo. Farnsworth, 1911. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a50136

 

Girl with kite and dog. Drawing by Ethel M'Clellan Plummer, 1917. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.37448

Girl with kite and dog. Drawing by Ethel M’Clellan Plummer, 1917. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.37448

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