Picture Climate: What Can We Learn from Kites?

Photo of the Dodge City, Kansas, Weather Bureau kite station’s operations in the 1890s

The men pictured here regularly launched the kites they are standing by as part of the Dodge City, Kansas, Weather Bureau kite station’s operations in the 1890s. Credit: NOAA Photo Library

As a child, you may have felt the wind on your face as you tossed a colorful kite in the air and watched it soar high above you. But, you might not know that over 250 years ago meteorologists in Europe were using kites to carry thermometers aloft and record upper air observations. A few years later, Benjamin Franklin also used a kite in his famous—and very dangerous—experiment that demonstrated the electrical nature of lightning.

By the late 1890s, the U.S. Weather Bureau had also begun regular kite observations across the country. However, these “observation kites” looked vastly different from the kites we might see children play with today. The Weather Bureau’s “box kites” towered over 6 feet tall, and strong, thin piano wire attached to a steam-driven reel held them in place. Meteorological instruments known as “meteorographs” attached to the kites recorded pressure, temperature, and relative humidity data on an automated clockwork driven chart recorder.

Despite their advantages over manned balloon ascents, which were very dangerous, kite observations also had several disadvantages. For example, the kites could only reach an altitude of less than 2 miles (about 3 kilometers), which limited their ability to take observations in the upper layers of the atmosphere. Moreover, meteorologists and scientists were unable to evaluate the data until after they reeled in the kite and recovered the observations from the meteorograph. If winds were too strong or too light, kites were not able to take observations at all. The potential for the kites to break away and endanger lives and property also made them a less than ideal option.

With the problems associated with kites, scientists continued to search for a better way to take observations in the upper layers of the atmosphere. And, by 1933, the advent of aircraft carrying meteorographs completely ended routine kite observations. However, like the kite, pilots could not fly in poor weather, and scientists could not analyze the data collected until the plane landed. Furthermore, pilots could only fly a little over 3 miles (about 5 kilometers) above the ground.

The inability of kite and aircraft meteorographs to reach higher layers of the atmosphere, operate in all weather, and provide data in real time helped foster the development of the first radio transmission upper-air data. In the late 1920s, scientists began suspending crude radio transmitters from large, unmanned balloons, and by the early 1930s, they were launching the first radio-meteorographs or “radiosondes” into the stratosphere. In 1937, the Weather Bureau established a network of radiosonde stations that continues to the present day in the United States.

Learn more about the history of upper-air observations and the Upper-Air Observations Program from NOAA’s National Weather Service. And check out our Weather Balloon Data to access vertical profiles of temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, atmospheric pressure, and geopotential height.