|August 1, 2000|
Decorating the Sky
Glenn Davison '80 is a master of miniature kites.
Glenn Davison '80 says there is something magical about his hobby, and those lucky enough to see the results of his efforts are likely to agree.
Davison's "magical" hobby is to design and build miniature kites, and, during the past five years, he has become one of the world's experts in this unusual avocation.
Miniature kites are just what the name implies -- small, lightweight versions of their larger cousins. They are ten inches or less in every dimension, excluding the tail, and they must be able to fly. The same shapes are used for kites of all sizes, but the materials used for the miniature kites are selected for their high strength and low weight. The spars, for example, are constructed with slivers of bamboo, boron, balsa, mylon, or carbon fiber, and the sails are tissue paper, mylar, tyvek, or polyester. Instead of string Davison uses fine silk thread.
"People find it fascinating that something as small and as delicate as a butterfly can by built to fly gracefully," Davison says. "You can design and build one in as little as ten minutes, and if you use a garbage bag, a toothpick, a plastic soda bottle, and typing paper, I can show you how to make one for two cents worth of materials."
Because of the complexity of his designs, Davison has spent up to eight hours constructing a kite. Most of the kites he has made have no tails, can fit in the palm of an adult's hand, and weigh less than two grams. To fly them he uses silk or spectra fiber or a strand of polyester filament. He often uses a motorized wand to fly the kites unassisted.
"When I design a new kite, it's always challenging because there are many forces at work, and they must all work together," he says. "The forces include roll, pitch, yaw, weight, lift, drag, material strength, and flexibility. A bigger kite will need stronger spars, a flat kite will need a longer tail. The kites I build are so small that small changes can make huge differences in the way they fly."
Davison's creations include a black and yellow eastern tiger swallowtail, a red and blue box kite weighing one gram, a "moose malay" with green antlers, a "beauti-fly" of bamboo and tissue paper that flies like a butterfly, and a "single cell" cube kite that "tumbles and dances."
His creations also include what he says may be, pound for pound, the most expensive kite ever sold. Using extremely thin film and tiny fibers the thickness of a human hair, he created a kite with a wing span of only three and one-quarter inches. Its estimated weight was five ten-thousandth of an ounce, and it sold at an auction for $95 -- or more than $3 million per pound.
Davison works as a technical marketing manager for FirePond, Inc., in Waltham, Mass. and he has both his bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science from Union. So where did the interest in kites come from?
"I've always been fascinated by flight," he says. "I built twenty-one rockets while I was in high school and then, after college, became interested in lightweight model airplanes. Five years ago I started making miniature kites, combining the techniques of making lightweight model airplanes with kites. Many of my kite designs are based on the dynamics of airplane flight."
To Davison, the delights of miniature kites are many:
they fit in your pocket and fly any time;
they can be beautifully made with little effort;
they can be used as prototypes for larger kites;
they easily demonstrate flight characteristics and kite styles;
they can be used to experiment with the dynamics of tail and bridle;
they surprise people by flying well;
they are inexpensive and make great gifts;
they make people smile.
As an ambassador for kites, Davison has lectured and given workshops and demonstrations to middle school students, teachers, and scouts. One of his kites was on a Martha Stewart television show ("just the kite, not me"); he has been interviewed by PBS for a documentary on wind and profiled in the Boston Globe; he has written for Kite Life magazine; and he's been a "featured flyer" at the international kite festivals in the United States and Canada.
Last fall, at the American Kite Association's annual convention, he set up a gallery with more than 800 miniature kites submitted by more than sixty individuals. "It was the biggest collection ever with a wide variety of styles, materials, colors, types of kites, designs, and sizes from many countries worldwide," he says. "When I asked people to name their favorites, they often laughed because there were so many beautiful kites to choose from."
Kiting has a long history
Kites date back as far as 2,000 to 3,000 years, when they were made of bamboo and silk in China. Sometime in the sixth to eighth centuries, kites came to Japan, where the basic rectangle of the Chinese kite took on new forms, such as dragons and turtles.
Kites have been used for scientific experiments (e.g., in 1752, Benjamin Franklin investigated atmospheric electricity by flying kites), transportation (e.g., in 1903, Samuel Franklin Cody crossed the English channel on a vessel towed by kites), and in war (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries kites lifted military observers to heights from which they could observe enemy forces).
Experiments with kites played a role in the development of the airplane. In 1894, Lawrence Hargrave, the Australian inventor of the box kite, linked four of his kites together, added a sling seat, and flew sixteen feet, thus showing a skeptical public that it was possible to build a flying machine.
Today, the American Kitefliers Association has about 5,000 members and the Japan Kite Association has about 1,000. During National Kite Month (April), some 200 kite festivals and workshops were held across the United States.