U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page

Sketch of George Cayley's 1904 glider

The first airplane was a kite on a stick, built by Sir George Cayley in 1804.

Replica of the Wright's 1899 kite

Flying a replica of the Wright's 1899 kite.

Diagram of Wright's 1899 kite

This is a diagram of a kite built by the Wright brothers in 1899 that Wilbur drew in 1912 to show how the kite was controlled. They used the kite to experiment with "wing-warping."

Toys used in space

Sometimes toys are used in space to demonstrate laws of physics. Centripetal acceleration can be clearly demonstrated in space by using a toy race car and a circular piece of track (left side of picture). Centripetal acceleration deals with properties of acceleration along a curved path. On the ground, gravity masks the actions of the scientific principles at play because as the car slows down, it falls quickly off the track. In space, though, the car clings to the track with the small force that is holding it there.

Model of Mars Sojourner

The Mattel corporation has joined forces with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to develop a Hot Wheels toy based on the Mars Sojourner rover.

Nerf® glider

Hasbro partnered with NASA to create the Hasbro Aero Nerf© Gliders, which benefited from NASA wind tunnel and aerodynamic expertise.

Shuttle model made of Legos®

This picture shows a space shuttle model fashioned out of Lego© blocks with some accompanying ground support equipment. An exhibit of space technology fashioned from Legos© was displayed at Space Center Houston adjacent to NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas.

Darth Vader's TIE Fighter

Well-known movies like Star Wars have led to an abundance of vehicles, characters, and other representations from the film. This is a production model of Darth Vader's TIE Fighter.

Benjamin Franklin portrait

Benjamin Franklin flew what was probably the most famous kite in history.

Kites, Toys, and Models


Humans have long attempted to duplicate the apparently effortless ability of birds to fly and soar high above the earth. Kites, toys, and models have always played an important role in understanding and appreciating the mystery and excitement of flight and space travel, traditions that continue to this day.


The oldest form of human-created flight is undoubtedly the humble kite. (A kite can be considered almost any type of unpowered, heavier-than-air flying object that is constructed around a frame and tethered to the ground or held by hand. A free-flying kite is called a glider.) Kite flying as an art and sport dates back more than 3,000 years to ancient China where primitive kites were fabricated from lightweight bamboo and silk. The Chinese conducted scientific experiments with kites and their once-simple creations evolved into elaborately designed and decorated flying vessels, taking on cultural and religious significance in Chinese society. As early traders began visiting China, the art of kite building was carried throughout Asia and later, to Europe and the Americas.


Probably the most famous kite in history belonged to American scientist, diplomat and founding father Benjamin Franklin. On a stormy night in 1752, Franklin flew a kite with a string attached to a metal key attached to demonstrate that lightning was a stream of electrified air.


Before the Wright brothers' successful powered flight in 1903, many individuals who were attempting to unlock the mysteries of flight built and flew kites as a safer way to experiment with flight. Not toys at all, the experimenter would build a kite that resembled the glider or powered vehicle he hoped to build later but would tether it to the ground or hold it by hand (if it were small enough to control) so its flight pattern could be observed. He could vary the wing shape and size, its position on the kite's body, the structure of the entire aircraft, and could try out various tail assemblies. Many of these kites were full-sized aircraft, as large as the glider or airplane they hoped to fly later, and sometimes they carried weights to see how they would perform under a load. The Wright brothers were among those who built several kites of increasingly larger size along with their free-flying gliders and before their successful powered aircraft, using it to experiment with the wing warping that would prove so essential to their powered flight. One of their kites even carried a 10-year-old boy.

The invention of the airplane by the Wright brothers and the evolution of aircraft and experiments with heavier-than-air craft resulted in a demand for aviation-related toys and models. The onset of the First World War resulted in an increased awareness of aviation and aircraft, and toy manufacturers responded with creative zeal, producing toys and replicas of greater accuracy.


The German Zeppelin dirigibles fascinated the public on both sides of the Atlantic and toymakers created entire lines of related products, from toy drums decorated with painted Zeppelins to small lead models. One, a German manufacturer named Lehmann fashioned toy model Zeppelins, complete with propellers, that flew in circles when suspended from a ceiling. Small wooden airplanes, built from paper and lightweight balsa wood and powered by a wind-up rubber band propeller, also became widely popular.


Charles Lindbergh's 1927 solo transatlantic flight opened the floodgates for aviation-themed toys and models. A good example was a popular card game of the era, titled "Lindy, the New Flying Game," which hit store shelves just after Lindbergh's historic journey, with playing cards depicting such variables as gasoline, mileage, take-off, and weather conditions. Playing all the cards just right resulted in the competitor's airplane flying safely across the Atlantic, just like Lindy; mistakes necessitated the playing of a valuable card allowing the player to acquire a new airplane or, at worst, safely bail out with a parachute.


Popular cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny and Olive Oyl joined the aviation world, crafted into passengers of cast iron and die-cast airplanes. Magazines and major mail-order house catalogs such as Sears Roebuck featured full-page advertisements for pedal-powered airplanes, large enough for a child to sit-in or ride upon, marketed at a generation of future Lindberghs to "hone" their flying skills.


Numerous books were published on the subject of model airplane building, explaining the principles of aeronautics, primers on why airplanes fly and detailed instructions for carving propellers. World War II increased the appetite for model aircraft, though now a majority of model aircraft were home-built and constructed from wood , factories had been converted and metal was in scarce supply, both were needed for the construction of real aircraft for the war effort. The post-war years saw the transition from wood and metal to plastic-based aircraft toys and models; in 1952, the British firm Airfix introduced the first injection-molded aircraft model construction kits.


Toys and models depicting the futuristic methods of exploring outer space were also popular among the youth of the 20th century, dating back to 1925 when the first space toy of record, a "War of the Worlds" diorama, was created by Frenchman Henri Mignot. The pre-war years of the 1930s and the popularity of the comic book and movie serial hero "Buck Rogers" led to the invention of one of the first toy rocket ships, the "Buck Rogers 25th Century Rocket Ship," and the original metal toy ray gun, the "Buck Rogers XZ-31 Rocket Pistol."


As dreams of space travel turned into reality with the 1957 launch of Sputnik and the flights of the first astronauts and cosmonauts, space toys abruptly shifted focus to reflect the missions and hardware of the day, and potential future expeditions. The first mass-produced solid propellant model rocket engines, produced by Estes Industries, appeared in 1958, followed by increasingly detailed and realistically crafted model rockets that could be easily built and safely launched. Model rocket clubs multiplied and continue to be popular today. In fact, some of these model rockets are so realistic, and carry such significant amounts of fuel, that there have been discussions about whether these are truly "toys" or perhaps potential weapons.


Plastic injection-molded model kits by a number of manufacturers, including (but not limited to) Airfix, Revell, and Monogram filled store shelves with detailed miniature versions of the spacecraft of the 1960s: Mercury, Vostok, Gemini, Apollo lunar spacecraft, and Apollo/Saturn 5 models were among the most popular with hobbyists. Mattel Toys' line of "Major Matt Mason" action figures and accessories, some based upon actual NASA designs concepts, depicted the astronauts, bases, and hardware of future lunar landing missions, a popular notion during the 1960's "Race to the Moon." Today, one can walk into the gift shop of any aviation and space museum and find airplane and space vehicle models of all complexities, many made for adult hobbyists as well as those designed for children. And entire stores are devoted to models and the accessories that accompany them.


Toys and models have not been limited only to realistic depictions of current spacecraft. Robbie the Robot, featured in the 1956 film The Forbidden Planet, led to a number of battery-powered robots with flashing eyes and laser-guns. Mighty Zeroid Robots, Colorforms Outer Space Men, and Star Team toys were imaginative and popular robots, painstakingly detailed with elaborate accessories. Today, the series of Star Wars movies has continued the tradition with a plethora of figurines, spacecraft, accessories, and collectables that accompany each theatrical release.


Modern advances in aircraft and rocket technology have not deterred dedicated hobbyists and schoolchildren from building and playing with miniature versions of these complicated mechanisms. Dr. Eugene W. Metcalf, Jr. of Miami (Ohio) University, a scholar in the field of American art and material culture, explained the fascination with space toys, a definition that can also be extrapolated to include the aviation toys of an earlier era.


"Before outer space could be explored or even contemplated," writes Dr. Metcalf, "it had to be imagined. In this view, space toys and games are particularly meaningful artifacts because they visualize the idea of space travel and exploration in inventive, often fantastical ways. They also encode many important social meanings and ideas, the changing nature of technology, the realms of work, play, fantasy, and reality and even our evolving vision of childhood itself."


Roger Guillemette




Crouch, Tom D. The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.

Gilliam, James H. Space Toys of the 60's. Burlington, Ontario: Collectors Guide Publishing, Inc., 1999.

Jakab, Peter L. Visions of a Flying Machine – The Wright Brothers and the Process of Invention. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution, 1990.

Metcalf, Eugene W., Maresca, Frank, and Bechtold, Charles (Photographer). Ray Gun. New York: Fotofolio, 1999.


Additional reading:


Hertz, Louis H. The Complete Book of Model Aircraft, Spacecraft and Rockets. New York: Crown Publishers, 1967.

Irvine, Mat. Creating Space: The Story of the Space Age Told Through the Models. Burlington, Ontario: Collectors Guide Publishing, Inc., 2002.

Laux, Keith R. The World's Greatest Paper Airplane and Toy Book. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1987.

Winter, William J. The World of Model Airplanes. New York: Scribner, 1986.


Online sources:


Top Fun Aviation Toy Museum. http://www.topfunaviation.com

Du Toit, Damien. "Your online introduction to Kites & Kite Flying." http://www.geocities.com/Colosseum/4569/home.html


Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political effects of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.