The Rise and Fall of a Scientific Object

in Nuncius
Restricted Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?


Between 1753 and 1914 kites constituted objects of scientific interest in different branches of physics. First, as instruments in experiments on the nature of electricity. Then, still in the 1750s, we find theoretical models of the flight of kites. In the late 19th century technologically sophisticated kites were used for aerological measurements. Finally, at the turn of the past century kites served early aeronautical researchers as scale models of wings. In each of these cases a rise and a fall can be seen: kites were reasonably successful in various applications, but they could not produce sufficiently interesting results to stand the competition of more efficient alternatives.


The Rise and Fall of a Scientific Object

in Nuncius




Clive HartKites: An Historical Survey (New York: Paul P. Appel Publisher1982) pp. 33–49.


Garry Barton Stefan DietrichThis Ingenious and Singular Apparatus. Fishing Kites of the Indo-Pacific (Heidelberg: Völkerkundemuseum vPST2009).


Lorraine Daston (ed.)Biographies of Scientific Objects (Chicago: University Chicago Press2000).


Paul Fleury MottelayBibliographical History of Electricity and Magnetism (London: Charles Griffin And Company Limited1922) p. 320.


Geoffrey V. SuttonScience for a Polite Society. Gender Culture and the Demonstration of Enlightenment (Oxford: Westview Press1995).


Leonhard Euler“Recherches plus Exactes sur l’Effet des Moulins à Vent,” Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences et Belles Lettresannée MDCCLVI 1758:165–234.


Gaston TissandierLes Rècrèations Scientifiques ou L’Enseignement par les Jeux (Paris: G. Masson Éditeur1887).


John J. RocheThe Mathematics of Measurement. A Critical History (London: The Athlone Press1998) pp. 163–187 and John L. Heilbron Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Mineola NY: Dover Publications Inc. 1999) pp. 449–489.


See for example: Giambattista BeccariaA Treatise upon Artificial Electricity (London: J. Nourse1776) pp. 461–462; Pierre Bertholon De L’electricité des Météores (Paris: 1787) pp. 32–66; and Claude Veau-Delaunay Manuel de L’electricité (Paris: 1809) pp. 185–186.


Cleveland Abbe“The Franklin Kite Club,” Monthly Weather Review1896 XXIV:416.


Jean-Daniel Colladon“Expériences sur les Cerf-volant,” La Nature1887 15 737:97–98.


W.O. Stoddard“Sim Vedder’s Kite,” Harper’s Young People1880 I (25):329–323. Available at: (accessed 27 April 2013).


Robert Marc FriedmanVilhelm Bjerknes and the Construction of a Modern Meteorology (New York: Cornell University Press1989) p. 49.


Michael R. LynnThe Sublime Invention: Ballooning in Europe 1783–1820 (London: Pickering & Chatto Ltd.2010) pp. 40–43.


W.E. Knowles MiddletonInvention of the Meteorological Instruments (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press1969) pp. 288–289.


Patrick Wilson“Biographical account of Alexander Wilson,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh1826 X:284–287.


Ernst Kleinschmidt (ed.)Handbuch der Meteorologischen Instrumente (Berlin: Verlag von Julius Springer1935) p. 474.


Charles F. Marvin“Kite Experiments at the Weather Bureau,” Monthly Weather ReviewApril 1896:113–128 p. 114.


See for example E. Douglas Archibald“An Account of Some Preliminary Experiments with Biram’s Anemometers Attached to Kite Strings or Wires,” Nature1884 31 786:66.


William Abner Eddy“Photographing from Kites,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine1897 54:86–92.


Lawrence Hargrave“Flying-Machine Motors and Cellular Kites,” Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales1893 XXVII:75–81 p. 78.


Lawrence Hargrave“Cellular Kites,” Engineering27 October 1893 56:523–524 and Lawrence Hargrave “On the Cellular Kite” Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wale 1896 XXX:144–147 Plate VII.


Donald R. WhitnahA History of the United States Weather Bureau (Urbana: University of Illinois Press1961); William Henry Dines William Napier Shaw The Free Atmosphere in the Region of the British Isles (London: Darling & Son 1909); and Richard Assmann Das Königlich Preussische Aeronautische Observatorium (Lindenberg Braunschweig: F. Vieweg & Sohn 1915).


Ludwig Boltzmann “On Aeronautics (1894)” in Susan G. Sterrett Wittgenstein Flies a Kite (New York: Pi Press (Penguin) 2005) pp. 255–264 p. 258.


Roland Müller“The Notion of a Model: A Historical Overview,” in Philosophy of Technology (cit. note 51) pp. 642–644.


Sjoerd D. Zwart“Scale Modelling in Engineering: Froude’s Case,” in Philosophy of Technology (cit. note 51) pp. 759–798 p. 764; Walter G. Vincenti What Engineers Know and How They Know it. Analytical Studies from Aeronautical History (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press 1990) pp. 138–139; and John D. Anderson A History of Aerodynamics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997) pp. 126–130.


Richard P. HallionTaking Flight (New York: Oxford University Press2003) p. 117.


Horatio F. Phillips“Experiments with Currents of Air,” Engineering1885 40:160–161.


Lawrence Hargrave“The Possibility of Soaring in a Horizontal Wind,” Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales1897 XXXI:207–213.


Howard L. ScamehornBalloons to Jets: A Century of Aeronautics in Illinois 1855–1955 (Chicago: Southern Illinois University2000) p. 27.


Charles Harvard Gibbs-SmithThe Invention of the Aeroplane (London: Faber1966) pp. 28–30.


Orville WrightHow We Invented the Airplane. An Illustrated History. Edited with an Introduction and Commentary by Fred C. Kelly (New York: Dover Publications, Inc1953) p. 15.


John D. AndersonThe Airplane. A History of its Technology (Reston, Virginia: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics2002) pp. 105–111.


Theodore von KármánAerodynamics: Selected Topics in the Light of Their Historical Development (New York: Courier Dover Publications1954) pp. 31–58.


John H. ParkinBell and Baldwin (Toronto: University of Toronto Press1964).


Alexander George McAdie“Franklin’s Kite Experiment with Modern Apparatus,” Popular Science MonthlyOctober 1897 51:739–747.


Gerard L’E. Turner“Scientific Toys,” The British Journal for the History of Science1987 20:377–398.


  • View in gallery
    Figure 1

    Some examples of the impact of Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment on popular culture: (1) Stamp commemorating the 250th anniversary of Franklin’s birth; (2) silver dollar commemorating the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth in 2006; (3) 1953 advertisement for the Chase Brass and Copper Company Inc.; (4) 1939 advertisement of the whiskey brand Haig & Haig Five Star Pinch Scotch; and (5) a beer jar decorated with a Franklin theme (Source: author’s private collection).

  • View in gallery
    Figure 2

    (1) An engraving showing the experiment conducted by Jacques de Romas, from Mémoire, sur les Moyens de se Garantir de la Foudre dans les Maisons (Bordeaux, 1776). (2) Engraving of Romas’ electrical cart, published in Mathurin Jacques Brisson, Dictionnaire Raisonné de Physique (Paris: Thou, 1781–1800). (3) Engraving published in the French magazine La Nature, depicting Romas’ experiments in an article by Maurice Girard, “Les Manieurs de Foudre,” La Nature, 27 January 1877, 191:134–137.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 3

    William A. Eddy’s kite train at the Blue Hill observatory. H.H. Clayton, “The Eddy Malay Tail-less Kite,” Scientific American, 15 September 1894:169–170, p. 169.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 4

    (1) Hargrave’s kite as depicted in Lawrence Rotch, Sounding the Ocean of Air (New York: E & J.B. Young & Co, 1900), p. 130. (2) Exemplar of a meteorological Marvin-Hargrave kite used by the U.S. Weather Bureau (Source: author’s private collection).

  • View in gallery
    Figure 5

    Examples of gliders constructed by Cayley in (1) 1804 and (2) 1818; and (3) his Governable Parachute constructed in 1852; in Gibbs-Smith, Sir George Cayley (cit. note 58), pp. 17, plate II, 85, 151.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 6

    Kite-surfing in Punta Paloma, Tarifa (Spain), © Manuel González Olaechea y Franco (


Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 23 23 12
Full Text Views 105 105 92
PDF Downloads 4 4 2
EPUB Downloads 0 0 0