Of Note: A Maori Kite, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Albatross

Of Note is an occasional series in which we share items that have caught our eye.

On September 25, 1910, in Aotearoa New Zealand, a Maori kite caught the eye of Alexander Graham Bell.

Understandably so, because the kite was stunning. Built on a frame of manuka and kanuka wood with a cotton fabric backing, its wings and body were painted in alternating black and red pigments. Decorative plaits of red, yellow, and blue wool hung along its sides. At its bottom, a pair of tightly braided flax legs terminated in claws covered in red wool. At its top, a face covered in barkcloth with eyes made of paua shell. Its wingspan measured just over 11.5 feet.[1]

A sketch of a maori kite.

Alexander Graham Bell’s rough sketches of the manu aute and manu taratahi kites he saw in Aotearoa New Zealand. Home notes, September 28, 1910, Box 359, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

A Maori craftsman had created the kite in the mid-1880s, when Aotearoa’s settler population was exploding and indigenous communities were adapting to dramatic, often unwelcome change. Traditional kite making was also coming to an ebb. This kite, still held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum where Bell first saw it, was itself an adaptation to changing times. It was a manu aute, or birdman-style kite, but with cotton fabric partially substituting for the traditional barkcloth and a face partially filled with newsprint — issues of the government gazette Ko te Kahiti o Niu Tireni, dated 1884.

Flying relatively low, with lines topping out around 500-650 feet, manu aute were birdlike in flight, prized for the way their wings quivered in the wind.[2] Maori communities valued them as avatars of birds, or manu, associated across Polynesia with “crossings between the tangible and intangible world.” In Aotearoa, such kites could aid in battle, invoke rain, identify treachery, or select new territorial holdings.[3] They had a sacred quality, intertwined with their secular function.

When Bell saw the manu aute, it reminded him of an albatross. He was in the midst of a world tour, entertaining grateful chatterboxes from Hong Kong to Uttar Pradesh to Paris eager to celebrate him as the inventor of the telephone. Bell recorded it all in his “Home notes,” journals that were part laboratory notebook, part scrapbook, and part diary, and which now make up a substantial portion of the Library’s Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers. The manu aute must have brought him back to the vast Nova Scotia estate he called Beinn Bhreagh, the site of his own aeronautical experiments.

Those experiments had increasingly centered on tetrahedral kites, constructed from a series of triangular pyramids that offered impressive stability once aloft. Troubled by recent accidents and near-misses in test flights of experimental aircraft, Bell had written in 1903 that, “a properly constructed kite should be capable of use as a flying-machine when driven by its own propellers.”[4] In other words, a kite properly designed should be able to carry a human being safely through the air.

Thomas Selfridge in prone position within large tetrahedral kite

Thomas E. Selfridge in the manhole of Bell’s tetrahedral kite, the Cygnet, on November 14, 1907. The following year Selfridge became the first person killed in an airplane crash, aboard a Wright Flyer. Box 143, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Bell was so impressed with the manu aute that he returned to the museum the next day, where curator Thomas Cheeseman showed him a second kite: a triangular manu taratahi decorated with plumes of toetoe stalks. In his “Home notes,” Bell wrote:

“…called on Mr. Cheeseman, curator of the Auckland Museum for information concerning the Maori kite that attracted my attention the other day, shaped somewhat like an albatross. He showed us another Maori kite in the museum made of split reeds + shaped somewhat like a wooden harmonium. It was triangular in shape with one corner truncated. The kite was said to be flown by a bridle with the base of the triangle to the rear. There were two plumes (vegetable) at the rear which acted as a tail + one plume at the front.”[5]

Museum staff gave Bell photographs of the kites and of some Maori carvings, and they recommended a book for him to read once he returned to Washington. He sketched the kites in his journal.

Bell had been exceedingly eager for his tetrahedral kites to become something other than a toy, to be recognized as a technology capable of transforming human flight. At the cutting edge of modern design, they nonetheless failed to become a model for the aviation industry. With his kites holding no particular sacred significance, Bell ultimately moved on. Beinn Bhreagh then became host to other, noisier experiments, like the hydrofoil boats that continually zipped across the nearby estuary by the end of Bell’s life.

Maori kites, on the other hand, have seen a resurgence. With a sacred and cultural depth inseparable from their aerodynamic design, new versions of traditional kites have begun to make appearances at ceremonies and celebrations, and in new events like Manu Aute Kite Day, now held to coincide with the Maori New Year. The kites reveal an indigenous scientific tradition and its revitalization by communities seeking to create alternative indigenous futures.

Bell’s kites are revealing as well, of an alternative past where house-sized kites carried human beings gracefully through the air and kept them from harm. Researchers can find more information about Bell’s kites and his travels in Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond in more than 200 volumes of his “Home notes,” held in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

Monochrome photograph of a man and a woman standing on a horzion with a kite in the air in the distance.

Alexander Graham Bell flying a kite with Helen Keller at Beinn Bhreagh. Bell’s original caption reads: “…the kite is flying in the air tethered to a peg in the ground, and Helen has her hand to the string noticing by that means the movements of the kite.” Notes on kites and other aeronautical subjects, August 23, 1901, Box 223, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Software limitations prevent the proper use of diacritics in this blog post.

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[1] Alexander Graham Bell, Home notes, September 25, 1910, Box 359, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Gerry Barton, “A Maori Birdman Kite in the Auckland Museum,” Records of the Auckland Institute and Museum 24 (December 18, 1987): 67-69.

[2] Barton, “A Maori Birdman Kite in the Auckland Museum,” 67.

[3] Jenny Newell, “The Maori ‘Birdman’ Kite at the British Museum,” Pacific Arts 1 (2006): 40-41.

[4] Alexander Graham Bell, “The Tetrahedral Principle in Kite Structure,” The National Geographic Magazine XIV, no. 6 (June 1903): 219.

[5] Alexander Graham Bell, Home notes, September 28, 1910, Box 359, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“Lest You Forget”: Samuel Ponczak (1937-2022)

The Polish Declarations of Admiration and Friendship for the United States present a snapshot of Poland in 1926 through stunning illustrations and a virtual census of one-sixth of its population, just before the unimaginable devastation caused by war. This blog is a tribute to Samuel Ponczak (1937-2022), an untiring advocate for the collection.