The Rise and Fall of a Scientific Object

In: Nuncius

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.

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    Clive Hart, Kites: An Historical Survey (New York: Paul P. Appel Publisher, 1982), pp. 33–49.

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    Garry Barton, Stefan Dietrich, This Ingenious and Singular Apparatus. Fishing Kites of the Indo-Pacific (Heidelberg: Völkerkundemuseum vPST, 2009).

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    Lorraine Daston (ed.), Biographies of Scientific Objects (Chicago: University Chicago Press, 2000).

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    Paul Fleury Mottelay, Bibliographical History of Electricity and Magnetism (London: Charles Griffin And Company Limited, 1922), p. 320.

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    Geoffrey V. Sutton, Science for a Polite Society. Gender, Culture, and the Demonstration of Enlightenment (Oxford: Westview Press, 1995).

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

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    Gaston Tissandier, Les Rècrèations Scientifiques ou L’Enseignement par les Jeux (Paris: G. Masson Éditeur, 1887).

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    John J. Roche, The Mathematics of Measurement. A Critical History (London: The Athlone Press, 1998), pp. 163–187 and John L. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 1999), pp. 449–489.

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  • 28

    See, for example: Giambattista Beccaria, A Treatise upon Artificial Electricity (London: J. Nourse, 1776), 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.

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  • 29

    Cleveland Abbe, “The Franklin Kite Club,” Monthly Weather Review, 1896, XXIV:416.

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    Jean-Daniel Colladon, “Expériences sur les Cerf-volant,” La Nature, 1887, 15, 737:97–98.

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    W.O. Stoddard, “Sim Vedder’s Kite,” Harper’s Young People, 1880, I (25):329–323. Available at: (accessed 27 April 2013).

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  • 34

    Robert Marc Friedman, Vilhelm Bjerknes and the Construction of a Modern Meteorology (New York: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 49.

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

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    W.E. Knowles Middleton, Invention of the Meteorological Instruments (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), pp. 288–289.

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    Patrick Wilson, “Biographical account of Alexander Wilson,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1826, X:284–287.

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    Ernst Kleinschmidt (ed.), Handbuch der Meteorologischen Instrumente (Berlin: Verlag von Julius Springer, 1935), p. 474.

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

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    See, for example, E. Douglas Archibald, “An Account of Some Preliminary Experiments with Biram’s Anemometers Attached to Kite Strings or Wires,” Nature, 1884, 31, 786:66.

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  • 42

    William Abner Eddy, “Photographing from Kites,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, 1897, 54:86–92.

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    Lawrence Hargrave, “Flying-Machine Motors and Cellular Kites,” Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 1893, XXVII:75–81, p. 78.

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  • 45

    Lawrence Hargrave, “Cellular Kites,” Engineering, 27 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.

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  • 48

    Donald R. Whitnah, A History of the United States Weather Bureau (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961); 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).

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  • 50

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

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

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    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.

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  • 61

    Richard P. Hallion, Taking Flight (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 117.

  • 62

    Horatio F. Phillips, “Experiments with Currents of Air,” Engineering, 1885, 40:160–161.

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    Lawrence Hargrave, “The Possibility of Soaring in a Horizontal Wind,” Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 1897, XXXI:207–213.

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  • 70

    Howard L. Scamehorn, Balloons to Jets: A Century of Aeronautics in Illinois, 1855–1955 (Chicago: Southern Illinois University, 2000), p. 27.

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  • 71

    Charles Harvard, Gibbs-Smith, The Invention of the Aeroplane (London: Faber, 1966), pp. 28–30.

  • 73

    Orville Wright, How We Invented the Airplane. An Illustrated History. Edited, with an Introduction and Commentary by Fred C. Kelly (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1953), p. 15.

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  • 74

    John D. Anderson, The Airplane. A History of its Technology (Reston, Virginia: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2002), pp. 105–111.

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  • 78

    Theodore von Kármán, Aerodynamics: Selected Topics in the Light of Their Historical Development (New York: Courier Dover Publications, 1954), pp. 31–58.

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  • 82

    John H. Parkin, Bell and Baldwin (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964).

  • 85

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

  • 87

    Gerard L’E. Turner, “Scientific Toys,” The British Journal for the History of Science, 1987, 20:377–398.

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