Today, we learn to trust our dreams. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Kites appeared in the
Western world just 400 years ago. But Chinese kite
flying is 2500 years old. The Chinese made every
kind of kite long before Marco Polo came. They made
communication kites, propaganda leaflet kites,
whistling kites, Buddhist contemplation object
kites. We even find aerodynamic theories for kites.
Sooner or later, this had to result in manned
But how it did! The first recorded human flight
comes down from the terrible reign of the
6th-century Emperor, Kao Yang. During an early
purge, Yang used an aerodynamic experiment to kill
his enemies. He fitted them with bamboo mat wings
and threw them off a tower to see if they could
fly. None could, but they gave their Emperor a nice
And he was fascinated. Maybe he'd have better luck
flying them to earth in kites controlled from the
ground. He put his next round of victims in large
kites and let their relatives handle the cables.
One prisoner, Yuan Huang-T'ou, got safely to earth.
So his sentence was commuted to death by
starvation. The unhappy Yuan might well have been
the first human to fly.
By the 13th century, the Taoist monks had made
man-carrying kites into a common technology. Marco
Polo told about a bizarre practice among Chinese
sailors preparing to leave port. They would, in his
words, find "a fool or a drunk." They'd tie him
into a kite and launch him from the ship. If he
flew straight up, it was a good omen for the
voyage. If he failed to rise, no merchant would
load his wares onto that boat.
The first European who flew in a kite was a man
named Baden-Powell. He succeeded in 1894 -- 1300
years after Yuan had delayed his own execution by
The story of Chinese flight is a story of human
ingenuity, all right, but it's not a nice one. Real
flight had to wait for the West. When Montgolfier
and Rozier were ready for the first manned balloon
ascent, King Louis said they could use convicts for
their experiment. If the prisoners lived, they'd be
pardoned. Rozier exploded, "What, and give this
glory to a criminal! He persuaded a friend of Marie
Antoinette's to persuade her to persuade the king.
In the end, it was Rozier who flew.
Read the roll-call of Western pioneers of flight:
Giffard, Lilienthal, Chanute, Wright -- they all
rode their own machines. And that's the difference.
Many died trying. But they flew because they
themselves hungered to shake off the earth. And
they trusted their lives to their dreams.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds