Photographs by Sim Sarak and Cheang Yarin
Article and photographs by Gary Hinze
Aeromodelers are familiar with towed gliders. The model glider is towed to some height and released from the towline to glide down. Rather than run with the towline, the glider could be launched into a wind and flown at the end of the line as a kite, without releasing it from the line.
Thirty years ago, the availability of inexpensive, expanded polystyrene gliders of four and a half foot wingspan gave me the opportunity to try this idea without risking the destruction of a meticulously constructed balsa and tissue glider. Several such gliders were available, and they may still be found in hobby shops, toy stores, and on the internet. 
 For example, the Guillow’s “Flying Eagle”: http://www.guillow.com/GuillowDetail.asp?UID=&prod=2000&SeriesId=13&FamilyId=2 [page removed]
ENERGY & THE POSSIBLE APPLICATIONS OF KITES
PREFACE AND BACKGROUND BY DAVE LANG
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) strives to stimulate certain types of research through sponsoring grants via what NIST calls the Technology Innovation Program (TIP). The TIP generally is aimed at sponsoring research that is not being funded through any other source, in particular, research that while presenting a high risk, has a potential for high rewards if outcomes are successful. Recently, NIST/TIP has been focusing on research related to solving socio- economic problems that have significant impact on the US national welfare. For instance, this year’s subject is energy and manufacturing.
NIST first solicits White Papers (WPs) to identify areas of national concern related to the announced broad subject matter. These WPs are then used to help NIST formulate more specifically what types of grant proposals will then be solicited. Having identified the areas of research to be granted, NIST then issues Requests for Proposals (RFPs) related to the subject research. NIST RFPs specifically target consortiums consisting of small business (large business is excluded), educational institutions, and non-profit organizations/ research agencies.
The WP below was written to (hopefully) stimulate NIST to consider funding research on one variant of wind power harvesting related to the use of kites at sea. This scheme is inextricably entwined with, and makes ultimate sense in the context of, the concept of a “modified hydrogen economy.” It is aimed at stimulating NIST funding to study a specific scheme of harvesting hydrogen at sea. Said scheme, of course, is not fully divulged, since in this phase of the NIST cycle, specific solutions are to be avoided at the behest of NIST instructions.
Drachen Foundation is one member of the consortium presenting this WP.
ENERGY & THE POSSIBLE APPLICATIONS OF KITES:
NIST/TIP WHITE PAPER
Ali Fujino, Dave Lang, and Kevin Mahaffy
THE SOCIETAL AND NATIONAL CHALLENGE
Freeing America (and the world) from its dependency on fossil fuel has become an urgent need. This is acknowledged at virtually every level of governmental, scientific, geo-political, sociological, and cultural research and study. Therefore, this white paper will not dwell on establishing the importance of this issue. Rather, it will address one scheme for emancipating ourselves from fossil fuel dependence, which, while high-risk, is also high-reward.
Freeing our nation from fossil fuel dependency may be achievable in a unique way by combining wind power harvesting with hydrogen production in a new paradigm. This envisions a modification of the conventional “Hydrogen Economy,” termed the “Hydrogen Assisted Economy” (HAE). The HAE retains all the benefits of the conventionally proposed Hydrogen Economy while eliminating its drawbacks; this is accomplished in part by utilizing a totally non-polluting, renewable, natural source of power to fuel our economy. Vital to this are the techniques now being envisioned for oceanic wind power harvesting that eliminates most of the drawbacks of land-based wind power harvesting, while maximizing harvest yield. These techniques offer both high-risk and high-reward. Other than minimal private contributions, this area of research has not been funded to date.
The Hydrogen Economy?
In his 2003 “State of the Union” address, President Bush made a strong public statement for support and cooperation with the European nations concerning development of the so-called Hydrogen Economy. Much has been written about the possibility of a hydrogen economy. In short, “an economy that derives most of its energy needs from hydrogen.” Such a definition is of course misleading since hydrogen serves merely as a medium for conveying energy from intrinsic sources of its origin to the point of end-use, and is, in and of itself, not an intrinsic energy source (such as is petroleum, solar flux, wind, tide, geothermal, nuclear, etc.). Hydrogen must be created at the expenditure of actual intrinsic energy sources before it can fulfill its role in the economy. The generic concept of an energy conveyor has been even further exemplified by proposals to use other media in this role; for example, the “ Lithium Economy” ( where lithium facilitates electrical storage devices as an energy conveyance), or the “Liquid Nitrogen Economy” (whereby the low heat content of liquid nitrogen is used to run “Stirling engines” to produce useful work), or the “Electron Economy” (in which energy is conveyed to points of need via electrical transmission), etc.
Simplistic claims that elemental hydrogen can meet virtually all forms of energy utilization is likely naïve. For example, while much has been written about the development of hydrogen fuel-cells for powering consumer vehicles, it has become common wisdom that it is both imprudent and impractical to use elemental hydrogen in consumer vehicles. Even automakers have abandoned serious attempts to design and deploy vehicles using hydrogen fuel. It will probably prove both unsafe and impractical to carry hydrogen on-board vehicles due to:
- Hydrogen’s highly explosive nature,
- Problems with containment,
- Its low volumetric energy density (for example, it will not be used any time soon to fuel aircraft due to fuel tank volumetric implications),
- Its chemical reactivity with metals that can degrade tanks and plumbing, thus requiring regular inspection and expensive initial construction, and,
- When used in liquid form, its extreme low temperature that requires complex tank insulation and necessary boil-off.
Other, major problems have been identified related to the inefficiencies inherent in expending intrinsic renewable energy sources to generate hydrogen which is consequently used merely as an energy conveyor.  For instance, it is estimated that using hydrogen fuel cells to power vehicles would be only a 20% efficient usage of a renewable AC power source (if used to produce the hydrogen). This is compared to a 70% efficiency if vehicle batteries were simply charged directly via the same renewable power source. This speaks for vehicles being powered by storage batteries rather than fuel cells, and indicates the essentially unavoidable advent of the fully electric auto era if we are to achieve fossil fuel independence. This also plays right into this white paper’s scenario for a re-definition of what should constitute a “hydrogen economy.”
CAN THE “HYDROGEN ECONOMY” BE SALVAGED?
Likely, the conventional definition of the hydrogen economy will not withstand the test of analytical scientific scrutiny and practical implementation. Major issues facing the conventional hydrogen economy are given below.
Issue 1: The amortization (or neutralization) of the end-to-end inefficiencies inherent in the pervasive usage of hydrogen as a means of energy conveyance across the wide spectrum of consumer needs.
Issue 2: The cost and disruption related to the implied infrastructure impact necessary to proliferate hydrogen usage into the many roles conventionally envisioned within the hydrogen economy.
Addressing and answering these issues will point the way to a new definition of the hydrogen economy.
Addressing Issue 1
Suppose that a plentiful, cheap, renewable source of hydrogen were available (this is addressed later in this white paper). Such a hydrogen source would defuse these inefficiency arguments used to counter- indicate hydrogen’s role in eliminating our nation’s fossil fuel dependency and carbon- footprint. In defense of hydrogen as an energy conveyor, it should be pointed out that hydrogen has the particularly endearing attribute that for industries requiring process heat, hydrogen (as opposed to lithium and liquid nitrogen, for example) can be combusted directly to meet this need in an efficient and zero-polluting fashion. This is an attribute that is unique only to hydrogen and electrons amongst the many proposed energy conveyors. Note that electrical power of course would suffer transmission line losses in being conveyed to the point of such end-use for simple conversion to industrial heat.
If non-fossil-fuel generated electrical power could replace even just the present uses of conventional electrical power (i.e. industrial and domestic), this would indeed be a significant reduction in both fossil fuel dependence and carbon footprint for our nation. If one further envisions the conversion of ground transportation to (renewably provided) battery electrical power, then our nation will have completely eliminated its dependence on petroleum down to those applications that no other energy form will currently satisfy, such as aircraft fuel, plastics production, and chemical industry. This remaining need can probably be met by our nation’s own domestic petroleum and gas resources.
Summarizing the Responses to Issue 1
By devising a plentiful, cheap source of renewable hydrogen to replace fossil fuel in existing conventional power plants, then simply energizing the existing national electrical grid with this power supplied by a renewable, non-polluting energy source, a major step will have been taken to enhance our nation’s energy security and minimize its carbon footprint!
Addressing Issue 2
While issue 2 might be construed to represent a significant impediment to adopting a hydrogen type economy, examining this briefly should neutralize such concerns.
Consider power generation, distribution, and utilization:
- A network of required electrical power generation facilities already exists in the form of conventional fossil fuel based power plants, and primarily needs to have only their heating systems modified. (Note: Down-stream from the heating process, the resulting steam that powers turbines would now simply have origin from a different combustion process, and would thus need no retrofitting.)
- These power plants are already conveniently integrated into our nation’s electric power grid.
- By restricting the use of hydrogen to only utility plants, elemental hydrogen will then be safely handled only by qualified personnel. The consumer then does not have to deal with the dangers and expense of maintaining hydrogen in their personal infrastructure (such as vehicles, homes, etc.).
- After homes and industry are provided with clean, renewable power (which is already seen above to be possible with minimal disruption), essentially all that is left is the vehicular transportation issue. This aspect of evolutionary change can be accomplished in a minimally disruptive fashion at the convenience of the national economy.
A GRACEFUL TRANSITION TO A HYDROGEN ASSISTED ECONOMY
The answers and solutions to the issues addressed above give rise to a new paradigm for using hydrogen. This paradigm will be termed the Hydrogen Assisted Economy (HAE). How would we make a transition in a practical and expeditious fashion to the HAE, thus leading the way to the alleviation of our nation’s fossil fuel dependency?
One of the major advantages of a conversion to the HAE is that the entire
process can be accomplished in a completely controlled, step-wise, evolutionary fashion. Below are the steps that would be taken:
- Develop the renewable hydrogen source. No infrastructure modification would even be attempted until the hydrogen generation systems were proven operational. Addressing this issue is the primary thrust of this white paper.
- Execute a staged, controlled, sequential conversion of existing fossil fuel electric generation plants into using hydrogen in place of fossil fuel as their heat source. Note: Upon completion of this step, we will have effectively converted all existing conventional electrical power usage (both domestic and industrial) to the renewable hydrogen base, but will have accomplished this gradually, with no societal impact, and with a minimum, controlled infrastructure impact.
- Introduce and proliferate electric vehicles for use in local city travel, with battery recharge accomplished via existing domestic electrical access.
- As electric vehicle technology continues to improve, introduce and phase-in all- purpose electric vehicles with inter-city range. This step would be complemented by the addition of high-capacity recharge facilities at existing conventional gas stations.
This leaves one question now unanswered, which is addressed immediately below.
WHERE DOES THE HYDROGEN COME FROM?
Current commercial hydrogen production techniques have significant carbon foot prints (at many levels, ranging from their raw-ingredient dependency upon fossil compounds, to the energy sources required for the chemical transformations. Hydrogen thus produced is of absolutely no value whatsoever in achieving the HAE. Creation of the required hydrogen with minimal resulting carbon footprint implies water electrolysis via renewable electric power. Since electrolysis requires electrical power, it would make no sense to use domestically produced forms of renewable electrical power to make hydrogen, which would in turn then be combusted in power plants to make electrical power again! This would be clearly an insane modus operandi. In fact, the only intelligent thing to do with all existing forms of renewable electrical power in existence today would be to feed them directly back into the grid, so as to further enhance the overall national energy security level.
What is of great significance in our quest for cheap hydrogen is that there has been identified a unique source of hydrogen that is NOT obtainable on domestic soil!
Achieving the Renewable Hydrogen Source
One of the foremost potential areas of renewable power production being examined today is wind power. Conventional wind power harvesting technology has become a highly sophisticated discipline, and is probably nearing its zenith of achievement and efficiency.
Harnessing of wind power via wind turbines is the mainstay of the conventional wind power paradigm, but this approach suffers from two fundamental limitations, namely:
- Wind Boundary Layer Attenuation: All conventional wind power systems suffer from an inability to operate at altitudes where stronger and steadier winds are experienced. This is because wind in the earth’s boundary layer progresses from the free-stream wind velocity existing higher-aloft to essentially zero at the actual ground surface. For medium to high wind conditions, full wind velocity (corresponding to near-winds-aloft) may not be realized until up to 1,000 meters of altitude; but, even at 200 meters of altitude, the wind usually doubles over what it is at 50 meters. Since intrinsic energy content of the wind varies as the “wind speed cubed,” the available energy can be 8 times greater at 200 meters than it is at 50 meters. For conventional wind turbines, the practical height of construction results in operation only in the lower regions of the earth-wind boundary layer. (The tallest turbines rarely exceed 50 meters.)
- Size: To reach higher altitudes (which consequently also allows larger turbine blades) implies a higher infrastructure cost just in the form of towers to loft the turbine blades. While high towers exist in civil technology, the difference is that towers supporting wind turbines are also supporting a device (the blades) whose primary purpose tends toward creating (rather than avoiding) aerodynamic drag in order to extract the wind’s kinetic energy. This works as a huge burden on the structure and the economics of wind power. Certainly, tall structures such as sky-scrapers exist abundantly, but their economic model is quite different from that of the wind turbine.
As an alternative to wind turbine harvesting, kite-based wind power systems are also being proposed and developed. While kite systems have the ability to avoid the boundary layer limitation, a number of problems are inherent in conventional kite- based systems. These are:
- Wind Magnitude Variability: When the wind dies, every form of wind power generation becomes non-productive. For a kite-based system, this can be quite problematic from a structural/operational standpoint. Solutions to this problem take various forms, depending upon whether the system design requires wind to actually maintain topology (such as kite- only based systems), or systems that are held aloft by the wind itself (such as auto-gyro based systems).
- Wind Direction Variability: For extraction units with fixed bases (or other inherent directional biases), wind azimuth variation is particularly difficult to adapt to, even to the point of likely being at least one of the pivotal reasons that ground-based kite power generation has failed to attain practical fruition yet. For extraction units with rotating bases, cost of construction increases. Even conventional wind turbines have a cost penalty to allow operation under variable wind azimuth.
A wind power scheme that is either immune to, or responds gracefully to, wind direction and magnitude variability and can harvest at higher altitudes, has potential for significant impact on the proposed conversion to the HAE.
The one remaining consideration for such schemes is operational location. Delivering the resulting electrical power production to the national grid implies a national continental location. But suppose that the ideal scheme to harvest wind power were not located within our nation’s continental boundary? In such a case, the transmission of the harvested power to the nearest grid entry point becomes problematic.
A typical situation that could result in such a conundrum would be wind power generation at sea, which enjoys many attractive attributes. Various ideas have now been put forth to harvest wind power in the oceanic environment. These vary in their designs, but most enjoy one or more of the benefits of oceanic harvesting, namely:
- Since such a system may be free to roam the oceans in search of wind, these generators can freely follow the synoptic wind patterns, whereas the land-based schemes depend upon synoptic weather patterns that happen to impact their geographical location at any particular point in time. This free roaming ability thus minimizes (or eliminates) the no- wind down-time problem of fixed based systems.
- Some ocean-based schemes can be made insensitive to wind azimuth variability. In fact, they might simply follow the wind azimuth as a natural aspect of their wind- chasing attribute (described in item 1 above).
- The real estate needed as a base-of- generation-operation is free and plentiful.
- Since ocean-based systems would likely employ kite-based technology, they can more easily neutralize the boundary layer limitation. Furthermore, the boundary layer has minimum depth over smooth surfaces such as the ocean, thus making it even easier to minimize its deleterious effects.
- There would be minimal to no interference with air travel for those schemes that project significantly in altitude.
So, ocean based systems may present great benefits for wind power extraction. However, they would suffer from the problem of delivering their power to the grid. One solution to this would be to use hydrogen as the conveyor of the harvested energy. Conveniently, hydrogen is also the prime ingredient for the HAE. For example, hydrogen could be created at sea by high- pressure electrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen and then simply transported back to land to fuel HAE power plants!
SO, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO NIST?
To support the above outlined practical and effective conversion to a Hydrogen Assisted Economy to create essentially a fossil fuel free national environment, the generation of abundant, cheap, and renewable hydrogen must be achieved. This could be potentially accomplished using wind power systems roaming the oceans. These would use hydrogen as the medium of energy conveyance to the conventional electrical power plants that had been converted to the hydrogen-fueled HAE scheme.
The one remaining issue to address would be the envisioning of such a wind power harvesting system, followed by a thorough systems and operation analysis to determine end-to-end efficiency in creating hydrogen from wind using such a scheme. Since the raw input energy (wind power) is free, then the only costs involved in producing the hydrogen is the capital to build the wind- harvesting device, operate and maintain it, and finally transport the hydrogen to land. The end-to-end efficiency implied in these steps does not have to attain any particular pre-conceived level, as per quotes such as: “Using hydrogen at 20% efficiency is prohibitive for a successful hydrogen economy.” All that is required is that such systems operate at a reasonable profit margin that makes them attractive as a capital investment. While such margins would of course depend upon the cost of alternative forms of energy, other compelling reasons for adopting such an approach could hinge upon how critical it is to minimize carbon footprint, and to attain energy security for our nation.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE NEXT?
Neither Land-based nor Ocean-based Kite power generation has received any governmental funding. This is likely because it is relatively new amongst renewable power generation schemes and (while possessing possible high-reward), also represents high risk.
The NIST/TIP program could significantly advance our understanding of a proposed Hydrogen Assisted Economy and its related power source by recognizing the need to investigate such an ocean-based scheme, and (1) instigating research and design- analysis to the point of reliably identifying the end-to-end efficiency of operation, (2) ascertaining its hydrogen production potential, and finally (3) identifying costs to a level that a reliable profit margin for such an endeavor could be calculated for comparison to other alternatives proposed to render our nation independent of other- nation sources of petroleum.
This would be done by the issuance of a request for grant proposals to accomplish a thorough understanding of such systems and their promise as a means to facilitate a Hydrogen Assisted Economy.
WHO IS INTERESTED IN RESPONDING TO SUCH A NIST RFP?
The international Drachen Foundation for the last eight years has played an active role as a point of contact in the field of kite power generation within our nation. In this role, they have identified a body of talented researchers and technicians covering the spectrum from individuals to companies that are vitally interested in furthering kite- wind power to assist in the attainment of national energy security. The authors of this white paper have identified at least 6 companies (that would qualify as interested small businesses), 3 universities, and 70 unrelated individual specialists (engineers, scientists, experimenters, kite designers, etc.), all of whom have contacted the Drachen Foundation of their own volition seeking information on all aspects of kite- power generation development.
ENERGY & THE POSSIBLE APPLICATIONS OF KITES: KITE POWER FOR THE WEEKEND WARRIOR
Wind power. It’s everywhere. In nature, it plays a part in ocean waves and mountain storms. Man’s use of it includes sailboats, windmills, and of course, drying clothes. Man has been using the wind for millennia, and with today’s technologies, significant breakthroughs may be possible to help answer part of the world’s energy problems.
In the kiting world, we are familiar with the power kites of Peter Lynn and the sporting applications of kite surfing and kite buggying. Many of us have felt the power of the wind while out flying our kites on a Sunday afternoon. Could we, weekend kite fliers, use kites to generate power? This is the kind of question that usually gets me into trouble. But the answer is: absolutely… but it will definitely take a bit of work.
With all this talk about alternate energy sources, what would it take for an average kite enthusiast to come up with their own version of kite power generation?
Let’s take a quick look, an overview, at what steps, you, as a weekend kite warrior, might go through to produce your very own energy using kites.
Let’s consider a machine that produces power using kites. For a few ideas, refer to Dave Lang’s article in the Drachen Foundation Kite Journal: http://www.drachen.org/journals/a16/Using-kites-to-generate-electricity.pdf.
Making power with a kite is quite easy:
- Get a powerful kite (one example would be a parafoil type design).
- Take it out on a windy day.
- Boom! The kite is pulling you out of your socks with enough power to drag you down the beach any way it wants. (For some good visuals on this, go to YouTube.com and type in “kite accident.”)
As I said before, making power is pretty easy. But as we can see, energy by itself can be a little dicey. So, the next step is to make it useful by harnessing and controlling that power. Simple examples of this would be kite surfing and kite buggying (again, try YouTube.com for examples).
So now we’re screaming across the desert with our buggy, producing kinetic energy.
One question is: “What are we doing in the desert?” It turns out the desert is a pretty good location for several reasons: it has lots of room for the buggy to move, lots of room for the kite to move, and lots of wind to move the kite. These are all important qualities if you actually want to produce a useful amount of energy.
The next question is: “What’s this ‘kinetic’ energy?” Kinetic energy is the energy of motion. While having just as much potential to do work as any other type of energy (mechanical, chemical, solar, etc.), it is not as versatile as other forms – specifically, the king of all energy forms (as far as usefulness to man’s applications), electric energy.
So, let’s make our energy more useful by converting our kinetic energy into electric energy.
One way to convert to electric energy is to connect the motion of our buggy to a generator. A generator is basically a motor running backwards. For example, in an electric car, the electricity running through the motor causes the motor shaft to spin, which in turn rotates your wheels and moves you down the road. By running the process backwards, your rotating buggy wheels can be used to spin the generator shaft, which in turn produces electricity (also known as regenerative braking).
To apply this concept in a simple way, we could use the old style bicycle generator that was used to power your bike light while night riding. The possibilities are endless. Hook the generator up to a small battery pack, or a set of on-board capacitors (a capacitor is similar to a battery with a much faster charge/discharge rate and a lot lighter). After a power charging run across the desert, pull the battery pack off the buggy and use it to power some other device like your iPod or cell phone.
But let’s think bigger. Referring back to Dave Lang’s paper, let’s attach a cable to the buggy that loops around two pulleys attached to a more powerful generator. Let’s say the cable reaches across 100 yards perpendicular to the wind. As the buggy reaches across the desert at speed, the moving cable spins the pulleys, thus generating electricity.
That’s pretty good! I can imagine myself sitting in my buggy, ripping back and forth across the desert, dragging that cable and producing electricity. Pretty cool!
Now the down side. All that power you’re so happily generating is not all converted to electrical energy. We’re going to have what are called losses: drag losses from the wind (that beautiful wind blowing through your hair) and friction losses (the bearings, the pulleys, the cable dragging on the ground)…but, hey, nothing is for free.
Now back to the issue of control. At this point we are controlling the kite and the buggy with the rider’s mind and body. To get it one step closer to a self-contained power station, let’s consider remotely controlling the kite and buggy. This is where the program starts to get complicated.
The first step isn’t so bad. We hook up some batteries to a controller and servomotors, which directly control the lines of the kite and buggy steering. You would send commands by way of a transmitter/receiver combination, similar to an RC airplane you would pick up at your neighborhood hobby shop. With this setup, you could, in theory, sit under a tree (or umbrella – remember, this is the desert) and drink lemonade while you remotely control the system.
The real challenges come when you try to make the system truly autonomous. For this, we need to create a computer program to take the place of your brain. Here, we may attach gyroscopic sensors to the kite to sense its orientation and direction: tension sensors on the kite lines, position sensors on the cable to know when to reverse the direction of the buggy, etc. To get to this point, you’re probably looking at a team of technically skilled and highly motivated kite enthusiasts (or a lot of money). But to come to the “lemonade under the tree” scenario is definitely plausible.
A final question is: “What should we do with this energy?” You could use it now, for example, to run a TV set. I would venture to guess that on the right day you could easily generate the 150 watts necessary. Or save it for later by charging a set of batteries. Or run it backwards through your electric meter and sell it back to the utility company.
Now that’s what I call green energy!
 Ulf Bossel, “Does a hydrogen Economy Make Sense?” Proceedings of the IEEE. Vol. 94, No. 10, October 2006.
RICHARD STEIFF: THE GENIAL KITE MAKER
For many European kite enthusiasts, the Roloplan is a kite they consider just as important as the Hargrave, the Eddy, or the Cody. It is interesting for collectors because many original examples of it still exist and have been traded time and again. Small wonder: the Roloplan was manufactured from 1909 to 1943 and again from 1950 to 1968 in altogether twenty different sizes!
Scarcely any other kite has been similarly available. In addition to the copyrighted mass production, directions for the construction of the Roloplan were published in a number of craft books from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Hargrave, Eddy, Cody. You read the names and immediately you visualize the appropriate kite. Behind the Roloplan also stands a name, but he remains outside Germany almost unknown. Richard Steiff, the maker of the Roloplan has become famous worldwide for another product: he invented the Teddy Bear. He also designed factory buildings for the Margarete Steiff Toy Factory, managed for a time – from 1903 to 1910 – by him, which buildings’ steel and glass construction were at the time a sensation, and which today are still in step with the times and are used for production with minimal technical improvements. They can be considered an anticipation of the Bauhaus style.
This Richard Steiff was a man of many talents. Born on February 7, 1887, in the South German town of Giengen, he went, after finishing public school, to a commercial art academy in Stuttgart, completed a longer stay in England afterward, improved his language skills, and then at the age of twenty, joined the firm of his Aunt Margarete Steiff. Margarete Steiff produced small plush animals in her modest atelier, and had at first only middling success, even though she called her enterprise “Felt Toy Factory Margarete Steiff.” It was Richard Steiff who brought a change in fortune with his genial idea in 1902. He designed a toy bear with movable parts and a head that could be turned, and gave him a tuft-like fur that resembled a real bear’s fur. Margarete Steiff and other manufacturers of that time already did produce toy bears, which could neither move their heads nor their legs. Richard Steiff’s idea brought movement to the toy and also to the market – although at first, success remained in the offing. At the toy fair of Leipzig in the spring of 1903, the new bear was barely noticed. Only just before final closing, an American buyer discovered the new toy, bought the last exhibition pieces, and ordered 3,000 of them.
At the same time in the US, a small bear was being produced that had been created from a cartoon in the Washington Post of November 16, 1902. The caricature depicts the US President Theodore Roosevelt, who is supposed to have refused to shoot at a small, defenseless bear while on a hunting party. But the Teddy Bear was the first Steiff product to become known and loved throughout the land.
Already in the first year, 12,000 copies were sold in the US, where they got the name “Teddy.” Theodore Roosevelt’s nickname at that time was “Ted” or “Teddy.” And still the Teddy Bear bears that name today.
Since, with the success of the Teddy Bear, the production of the Margarete Steiff Toy Factory rose almost overnight, new employees had to be hired and a bigger production space was needed. Richard Steiff, only 26, sought a solution to this problem. He sketched the plans for buildings which could be constructed quickly and at the least possible cost. For Richard Steiff, the most important thing was that the female employees, who produced the plush animals by hand, be able to work in bright surroundings, which not only contributed to their personal comfort but also to greater productivity and with fewer errors. To this day, these clearly arranged and unornamented buildings are in use.
Richard Steiff, together with two brothers, was manager of the company founded by their Aunt Margarete, and in spite of the stress, Richard maintained a wide open curiosity. He occupied himself with the experiments of Otto Lilienthal, who had written his study, “Birdflight as Foundation for the Art of Flying,” in 1889. Lilienthal had brought to pass the first glider flight of a machine made by himself, but had suffered mortal injuries in the crash of his glider in 1896. Like Lilienthal, Richard Steiff experimented with kites and other flight objects. He was not the only one who gave thought to creating a machine with which a human being could fly. The kites of Hargrave, Eddy, and Cody grew from the same intention – although they were at best “chained” ascents. No flights were possible with these machines.
The result of Richard Steiff’s experiments was the Roloplan, whose prototype was ready in 1908 and which went into mass production in 1909. (It has been passed down that Margarete Steiff was not at all convinced by these ideas of her pet nephew.) With the name Roloplan, a patent was applied for, whereby the name was to signify that it was on the one hand derived from the word “Aeroplan” (for airplane) and, on the other hand, would signal that the kite could be rolled up.
The special attributes of this kite were its equal length and breadth. The sail of the first Roloplan was divided in two, later in thirds, and therefore they were tagged 120/2 or 180/3 – the first number signifying length (or breadth), the second the number of panels or sails. The sails, made from a light cotton material, came in the color combinations of yellow/red, red/blue, and yellow/blue (but other firms were able to order and fly advertising kites with other colors and their firms’ logos). The frame rods or sticks are found in pockets; the pocket for the length stick is always sewn onto the front side of the panel, and, like the reinforcements at the ends of the pockets, are of brown twill. The sides of the sail are reinforced on the back side by narrow bands always sewn on with a characteristic zig-zag stitch. Over the openings for the insertion and removal of the frame sticks are sewn ties, always arranged on the right side and beside the pocket for the length stick.
The Roloplan was manufactured in the following sizes: 80/2—90/2—100/2—120/2—150/2—180/2 and 180/3—210/2 and 210/3—240/2 and 240/3—270/2 and 270/3—300/2 and 200/3—330/2 and 330/3— 360/2 and 360/3. In 1910, a size 720/3 was also manufactured for a short time.
Not all formats were produced at all times. The Roloplan with three sails, for example, was manufactured only from 1910 to 1939.
The Roloplan was and is a wonderful flying machine in all its sizes and has enormous advantages over the kites produced at that time. Richard Steiff was a clever marketing expert (even though this designation didn’t exist in his day) who took care that these qualities became widely known. Steiff took part in many flight contests on the European continent with the Roloplan in order to advertise his kite and to further sales. He garnered numerous distinctions with which many sales pitches could be formulated for the kite. The Roloplan won prizes for the highest flight, biggest capacity, for stability, and also for flight photography. In this, hewas a pioneer: he designed a camera support or “tripod” for the Roloplan that was fixed on the kite string under the kite and which could be released after a time via a glowing tinder. There are a great many photos upon which, by such means, the factory grounds in Giengen were pictured.
Photos are also known that show Richard Steiff in a basket in a manned ascent. In another photo, Richard is shown under an arc of two dozen Roloplans, like the one Eiji Ohashi “invented” many decades later. And he experimented with a machine like an airplane that had a span of nearly twenty meters. He had to discontinue these attempts due to the high cost. On many photos the Roloplans can be seen with the company name printed on them: advertising by kite was nothing unusual at that time.
Kites continued, even after the invention of the Roloplan, to keep Richard Steiff involved, particularly after his overwhelming success in many European countries. There is evidence of this in an album of the Steiff family in which snapshots are contained, taken at different seasons, in which photos can be seen that are also used in the instructions for setting up and taking down the Roloplan. One can see a variety of air snapshots taken with the aid of the Steiff photo “tripod.”
But the sensation in this album is the photos of twenty kites, unknown or barely noticed until last year. Of the pictured kites, only two have been reconstructed by kite enthusiasts. The photos originated during the last two years before World War I. They show these kites in black and white (and heavily darkened) in flight, isolated from any other objects from which the size of these kites might be estimated.
In these kites, Richard Steiff varies the form of the Eddy kite (with which he must have been familiar). He changes the form of its sails in three designs, but leaves their proportions unchanged. For other kites in the photos, he plays with the basic form of the square and separates it, like with his Roloplan, into two to four partial planes. And finally Richard Steiff takes the hexagon and varies it with differently formed partial sails in yellow/red or red/blue (minimal differences in the brightness of the sails show that two different paints were used). We can see in these form variations how Richard Steiff, who had trained as a draftsman, sketching playfully, further developed each of three basic forms and thus found way surprising new sail panels for flat kites. Deviations from these geometrically accentuated forms yield a stork, a butterfly, and a bird shape.
He certainly would have sketched yet other forms among these creative drawing exercises. Perhaps still more kites had been built after these designs and were tested by the co-workers in his firm. Presumably Richard Steiff photographed only the truly flight worthy models.
Because the Roloplans reveal unmistakable characteristics, and because it can be assumed that Richard Steiff also employed for these test kites the same characteristics (for which there is proof in a very few photos), I thought, almost 100 years after the flights documented by the photos, I would reconstruct the kites and present them to interested kite enthusiasts.
I now have two kite builders for the practical work, people who have a name in Germany ( and abroad as well) as knowledgeable about the Roloplan: Werner Ahlgrim, who also had a part in the writing of my earlier book, Kites with a History, and Wolfram Wannrich, who developed the plans for a replica series of the Roloplan several years ago.
Through this cooperation, seventeen kites were created, which are presented in my book, The Kite Designer Richard Steiff  with detailed construction guidelines. I call them original replicas, because the old photos offer no information about the size of the kites. We oriented the new/old Steiff kites to the familiar dimensions of the Roloplan and chose as length 210 cm for most of the models. Some kites are 240 cm long; in one case, I chose 270 cm as length. The most work had to be done when the length of the balance ties had to be determined. One could, of course, tell rather exactly from most of the old photos how many balance ties on which places of the kite body were fastened; but it took many attempts before a co-worker on this project, Ludger Gruss, had so arranged the balance ties that the kites safely flew the way we know the Roloplan flew.
The kites have proven themselves in rather mild wind velocities and in higher wind velocities at the kite festival of 2008 on the Danish island Fano.
The political conditions before, during, and after World War I in Germany and in other European countries were not such that Margarete Steiff’s offer to introduce new kites could be acted upon. Richard Steiff therefore made do with his most successful model, the Roloplan, and with his central assortment of plush animals and mechanical toys. In the 1920s and 1930s, only simple kites in the airplane and bird forms were offered to supplement the Roloplan in its different sizes. Richard Steiff was only involved with the kites from a distance, if at all, for he emigrated with his family in 1923 to the US. It was mainly for health reasons that Steiff withdrew from the management of the company. To be sure, the Margarete Steiff Toy Factory was the most important employer in the town of Giengen, for in almost every family at least one member worked for Steiff. This meant an immense responsibility, under heavy pressure, that impelled Richard Steiff to work hard. As a young man, he had already acquired a good knowledge of the English language and was able to adjust quickly to life in the US. With his resettlement, he also wanted to be nearer to the market that he considered especially important for the sale of Steiff animals. He wanted to observe on the spot trends that could have an influence on his company’s collection. He wanted to align the new plush animals in form and color with the taste of his most important consumer market. For him, the kite theme was now completed, except for the comparatively simple bird and airplane kites that were offered along with the Roloplans.
Thus, important ideas came from him to Germany. He himself felt at home in the US. He won many friends and had an open, hospitable home. Yet his health problems continued; this genial kite designer died on March 30, 1939, in Jackson, Michigan, at the young age of 62.
Translation from the German by Robert Porter
 Walter Diem’s book on Richard Steiff, Der Drachendesigner Richard Steiff (The Kite Designer Richard Steiff), is available for sale. For more information, please contact the author directly at email@example.com.
RICHARD STEIFF: ORIGINAL REPLICAS
Wolfram Wannrich and Werner Ahlgrim
The following images are original Steiff kites paired with replicas, several of 17 constructed by Wolfram Wannrich and Werner Ahlgrim.
EN VUELO LIBRE (IN FREE FLIGHT)
There is no doubt that influential Mexican artist Francisco Toledo is taken with kites! After last fall’s successful Toledo-inspired kite exhibit in Oaxaca, Mexico, for which the Drachen Foundation contributed over 50 art kites created by international kite makers, Toledo exerted his influence to exhibit the kites in Puebla, Mexico, a town two hours south of Mexico City.
Under the direction of Cesar Gordilla Aguilar, director of the Museo Erasto Cortes, over 300 kites were installed in Puebla’s Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. This included two Drachen Foundation exhibits – Skyart, featuring the kites of Jose Sainz, Nobuhiko Yoshizumi, and myself, and The Artist and the Kitemaker by Greg Kono and Nancy Kiefer – as well as almost 200 kites from Oaxacan artists, and another 40 or 50 original Toledo kites. The site, a beautiful factory building from the early 1900s, was secured through Maestro Toledo’s urging that this space be made available for papalotes.
Drachen Foundation Administrator Ali Fujino and myself were invited by the government of Mexico to present kite workshops to Puebla artists and local “at risk” children. Pueblan artists, along with several artists from Argentina, contributed almost 150 additional kites to the exhibit. Many of these were finished in the workshop environment, while others were finished by Scott and the installation crew. The final installation included nearly 500 kites, the majority from Mexican artists.
The best may be to come. Mr. Aguilar is very excited about the possibility of an exhibit in 2010, featuring contemporary and Japanese woodblock prints and kites. This would be an ideal promotion for his museum, which features many of the finest Mexican prints from the early 20th Century.
THE WAY WE WERE
Another year has slipped away and memories of Y2K have become distant as the first decade of the 21st Century has almost passed. As we mark this moment, I want to take a look back at how we in the kite world have progressed to this exciting time: kite surfing a mainstream sport, resurgence of kite cultures throughout Southeast Asia, talk of “mega-kite-shows,” and real possibilities of significant kite power on land and water.
For most of us baby-boomers, we were influenced by an “old guard” of kite fliers, a group predominately from the WWII-era “greatest generation.” Can you imagine the raised eyebrows of their peers, when in the 1950s or 1960s these pioneers went out to fly kites? Here in the US, we remember Domina Jalbert, Francis Rogallo, Paul Garber, and other national figures, but there was a whole cadre of kite people who influenced me and my contemporaries. I’d like to offer some remembrances of people who had serious influence on my kite life, and ask that you take a moment to remember others who might have guided you.
My first international trip for the specific purpose of flying and seeing kites was with Dave in 1988. I had been involved with kites for over ten years by then, but had very little hands-on knowledge of ethnic kites. This trip to China changed everything. Dave led kite excursions to Japan and China for many years throughout the 1970s and 1980s and introduced countless people to the magic of Asia and its kite traditions. On that trip in 1988, among others, there was a “retired” actress, Gloria Stuart, who had traveled with Checkley to Japan in the mid-1970s. Gloria became famous again when she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “Titanic,” but she had carried on a love affair with kites since before WWII. Checkley was an active member in the fledgling early years of the AKA, virtually hosting the annual convention at his Seattle home in 1982. Sadly for the American kiting family, Dave passed in early 1989 while planning another trip to Japan.
When I started flying kites in the mid-1970s, I hardly thought I’d ever have to make my own. There were just so many options available – Sky Zoo kites, Vertical Visuals, White Bird kites, the Nantucket Kiteman – why would I ever have to make a kite for myself?
That question was answered in 1984 when I attended my first AKA annual convention. Now my eyes were open to all the kite makers who were making their own creations. I met peers like Rick Kinnaird and his mythical BST, Doug Hagaman with his Giant Red Parafoil, and Scott Spencer, master of the snowflake. But I also met many of that greatest generation: Bob Ingraham, Tony Cyphert, Ed Grauel, and others. Somewhere along the way, I met a very retiring lady, Margaret Gregor, whose Kites for Everyone contained concise building information and flawless designs for a variety of kites. Margaret used input from many of the “old guard” kite makers like Len Conover and Ed Grauel, but also introduced us to the likes of Lee Toy and Steve Sutton, both whom would have a profound effect on American kiting. (Count the Sutton Flowforms at any major kite festival, or ask any kite artist who first pushed him toward art kites.) Margaret was a bridge from kiting’s older generation to today’s kite maker and workshop presenter. Her efficient uses of materials and foolproof designs are still the standard for elementary kite education.
BETTY STREET AND BILL LOCKHART
It’s not fair, but I can never speak about just Betty, or just Bill; it’s always Bill and Betty, together, a team. With ten years of the Junction, Texas kite retreat, they raised the bar on kite education, inviting local and international artists to inspire and conspire to greatness. As art educators, their emphasis was upon creativity and originality, and they were (and still are) respected mentors for all of us who call them friend. Betty and Bill’s influence is still being felt. They were active travelers in the late 1970s and early 1980s and documented kite festivals with photographs and collected kites. Both have donated their kite collections, their slides and photographs, and their kite libraries to the Drachen Foundation so they can remain accessible to the active kite community. Finally, they also leave a wonderful legacy of their own beautiful kites, patchwork masterpieces that I was instantly drawn to back at my second AKA convention in 1985. Here was someone else using patchwork techniques and ideas that I had no idea existed! How lucky for me that they became such good friends and trusted advisors.
I hope these ramblings have inspired you to think about those who might have had a pivotal influence upon your “kite life.” The Drachen Foundation is interested in first- hand reminiscences for future publication in its Discourse: from the end of the line.
Email yours to firstname.lastname@example.org.