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Historical Chinese innovations in aviation technology

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The embryonic forms of modern aircraft - the kite, rocket, Kongming lamp, and bamboo dragonfly - were invented and created in ancient China and played an important role in the generation and development of aviation. *



Kites are belived to date to the time of the philosopher Mo Zi (478-391 BC), who constructed a wooden hawk that flew, very likely before Archytas's wooden dove of 400 BC. It is not certain if these were true kites, since they were both made of wood, and since Archytas's device especially used some kind of internal steam pressure. The earliest contemporarily written account of kite flying was about 200 BC when the Chinese General Han Hsin of the Han Dynasty flew a kite over the walls of a city he was attacking to measure how far his army would have to tunnel to reach past the defenses. Knowing this distance his troops reached the inside of the city, surprised their enemy, and were victorious.*

Both the Chinese and the Japanese learned to use kites for raising soldiers into the air as spies of snipers. Some old Japanese and Chinese prints show warriors flying over their enemies’ territory.*

In the 19th century the British scientist Sir George Cayley, known as the father of aeronautics, used modified arch-type kites to make “flying machines,” which in 1853 led to the first recorded manned flight in a glider.*


Old photos of the Wright Brothers and other early flight engineers using kites to gather data, include a full size replica of a four-line kite constructed by the Wrights that revealed the concepts of wing warp plus pitch and yaw.*

The early experiments of the Wright brothers involved studying buzzards and other birds, and flying kites. At this same time, Lawrence Hargrave was devising the first box kite in Australia. Hargrave had weather studies and possible military purposes in mind while experimenting with box kite designs. As soon as the Wright Brothers saw and flew a Hargrave box, they knew what shape their manned flying machine should take.

Orville and Wilbur flew Hargrave kites as gliders at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This is where the first manned flights would occur several years later. One day while flying box kites at Kitty Hawk, The brothers discovered that the kites provided enough lift to be able to lift a man off the ground. In August of 1899, they built a biplane kite, also known as a warping kite. They discovered that by varying the position of the four lines attached near the kite's extremities, they could simulate the twisting of the wings of a soaring bird. This they called wing-warping lateral control; a method that was to characterize Wright's airplane for years to come.*



The Chinese invented gunpowder and soon saw its potential for warfare. They filled bamboo tubes with gunpowder and lobbed them as bombs, later attaching them to arrows to launch them farther.

It probably wasn’t long before someone noticed that if the gunpowder-filled tube was lit on one end, it would propel itself much farther than an arrow could fly: The solid-fuel rocket was born.

Those early Chinese rockets were very simple devices; nothing more than a tube filled with propellant, with a cap on one end and fuse at the other. They had no moving parts and precious little control. Once lit, they burned furiously until their fuel was spent and they fell flaming to Earth, a simple but very effective weapon.

The Chinese used rockets against the Mongols at the Great Wall, the Mongols launched them at the Arabs in Baghdad, the Arabs used them against French crusaders, the French fired them at the English in the Hundred Years War.*

Note: Hero of Alexandria did construct a steam jet rotor, but it's status as a rocket is dubious. An ingenious invention to his credit, nonetheless.


The Chinese also discovered that adding length to a rocket tube, using sticks or arrows, stabilizes the device's flight. This was a very simple and passive control, but was the first rocket guidance system.

The first of all multi-stage rockets, the 'fire-dragon issuing from the water', of the early or mid fourteenth century, which was used in naval engagements. When the rockets near the head burnt out, they lit fuses which ignited the second-stage rockets at the rear. The tube with the dragon's head was five feet long, and the fuses ran inside the body. This rocket flew in a flat trajectory, three or four feet above the water, for over a mile. It's design was reproduced in the Fire-Drake Artillery Manual, published in 1412.*

Coincidentally, one of the most famous Chinese in modern times belongs to a team known as the "Rockets"*



By the second century BC, the Chinese were making miniature hot-air balloons using eggshells. A book written at that time, The Ten Thousand Infallible Arts of the Prince of Huai-Nan, mentions this pastime: "Eggs can be made to fly in the air by the aid of burning tinder." An ancient commentary added to the text explains further: "Take an egg and remove the contents from the shell, then ignite a little mugwort tinder inside the hole so as to cause a strong air current: The egg will of itself rise in the air and fly away."

Few references are found in Chinese writings to the use of the hot-air balloon principle, but by medieval times, the military possibilities were being exploited. There are several references in European chronicles to the use of hot-air balloons, shaped like dragons, either for signaling or as standards by the Mongol Army at the Battle of Liegnitz in 1241. The principle was in all probability obtained from the Chinese; the Mongol Dynasty finally established full sway over all of China only nineteen years after this.*

Unmanned hot air balloons are mentioned in Chinese history. Chu-ko Kung-ming (諸葛 孔明) in the three kingdoms era used airborne lanterns for military signalling. These lanterns, known as Kung-ming lanterns nowadays, are still being flown in China despite the risk of causing a fire upon landing.*



By fourth century AD a common toy in China was the helicopter top, called the 'bamboo dragonfly'. The top was an axis with a cord wound round it, and with blades sticking out from the axis and set at an angle. One pulled the cord, and the top went climbing in the air.

Sir George Cayley, the father of modern aeronautics, studied the Chinese helicopter top in 1809. The helicopter top in China led to nothing but amusement and pleasure, but fourteen hundred years later it was to be one of the key elements in the birth of modern aeronautics in the West.*


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