Ben Franklin may have used them to explore electricity, but it has taken a couple hundred years for another inventor to really unlock the possibilities of kites.
Dave Barresi and his fellow "traction fliers" have taken kite flying soaring far beyond afternoon picnics. Instead of tamely standing in one place and letting the kite have all the fun, they use the power in kites to create carnival rides wherever they are. All it takes is open spaces, some wind, and imagination.
"You can fly anything," could be Barresi's motto. As he points out, "Houses fly. It's a question of wind speed."
If you head out to Popham Beach in Maine, you're likely to see Barresi, kite in hand, speeding along the beach in a pair of modified in-line skates or trundling along the packed sand in a three-wheeled buggy. On a windy day, he says he can reach speeds of up to 30 m.p.h.
Traction flying is when you use the kite to harness the wind to power you along the ground. Barresi, a pioneer in the sport, invented a beach buggy using three bike frames, a spring, and wheels. And he modified the skates so that they could go across sand or fields. His partner, George Baskette, has showcased some of Barresi's inventions on CNN's "Science and Technology."
While most people put up their kites for the winter, Barresi isn't one to be deterred by a little snow. He straps on downhill skis, unfurls his brightly colored kites, and goes zooming across frozen ponds.
Barresi flies quad-line kites that look like miniature parachutes. His biggest kites measure five square meters and can really pack a wallop. The fastest kites around - two-string flexifoils, for example - can fly up to 115 m.p.h. But because quad-line kites have four strings, he has much more control over them. "I can land it in your hand or fly it at 60 m.p.h.," he says.
Barresi says he can have you flying one of the kites in about half an hour. But it would take a bit longer before you'd be ready to strap on in-line skates.
BARRESI even flies kites indoors. During the winter, there are indoor competitions in school gyms where people get their kites aloft, not with a giant wind machine as you might expect, but with their own skill. Creating an apparent wind, they put the kites through various stunts, including a ballet. The flier has to perform a duet with his kite, both dancing at either ends of the strings.
It's still a relatively new sport, says Barresi, who was named national indoor champion two years ago. And there are still some kinks to get ironed out. "There's a fine line between flying and you dragging it [the kite] through the air. I can put a rock on a string and do all kinds of things with it. But is it flying? Not really."
Barresi is full of knowledge about the history and evolution of kite flying. Everybody knows about Ben Franklin and his kite. But did you know that kites were also used to build the bridge across Niagara Falls? There was no way to get across by boat, so the builders would fly stuff back and forth across the falls. Stunt flying was invented during World War II to give gunners target practice. Kites have even been used to forecast the weather. Kites could lift weather equipment as high as 11,000 feet - higher than hot air balloons.
But more than the sport or the trivia, what Barresi is really interested in is using kites for teaching.
Barresi got hooked on kites as a student teacher in 1974. He was supposed to teach sixth-graders drafting, woodworking, and graphics. So he and his class designed their own kites and went out on a spring day to see how they'd fly. That was 20 years ago. He's still flying and still teaching.
Barresi now teaches high school at Madison Area Memorial High in Farmington, Maine, and he still uses kites in the classroom. They not only help teach math, science, and graphic design, but he says they can get the attention of even the most unruly loudmouth. Barresi says after he gives his class a demonstration, he'll hand the kite to the biggest football player in class - most likely the one who was sounding off about how sissy kite flying is - and watch as the kite drags him down the field.
Barresi has even used his kites to defy gravity.
He and his friends used to stack flexifoil kites together until they were strong enough to lift a man 20 feet into the air. Then he would fly himself right along with the kites. He says it was like riding the Whip at the carnival. (The American Kitefliers Association has since banned "man-lifting" because it is too dangerous.)
The kites can also be stacked together for "moon jumps," where Barresi uses the wind to let him jump to incredible heights. He'd give kids piggyback rides as he whipped the kites through the power zone - the area of space where the kite is perpendicular to the wind - and jump. He says he can jump 12 feet high in the air and as far as 100 feet.
Talk about having your own pair of wings!
More than one scientist has pinned his hopes on a string. In 1749, for example, Scottish scientists Alexander Wilson and Thomas Melville fastened thermometers to kites in order to record the temperature of the air at high altitudes. In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph, used a kite to loft an antenna 400 feet in order to receive the first radio signal ever transmitted across an ocean. (From 'Kites for Kids,' by Burton and Rita Marks, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1980.)