Kites were probably invented in China almost 3,000 years ago, using lightweight bamboo and silk. Some kite historians have speculated that they may have predated the Chinese invention in Indonesia, where leaf-kites are depicted on cave paintings. They did not journey to Western Europe until the 1500s, where they have been used in scientific and military experiments ever since, most famously by Benjamin Franklin to “discover” electricity.

Squeaky & Friends - Berkeley Kite Festival - Atlas Obscura Blog

Squeaky the Octopus & Co.

Regardless, the kite has been passed down to modern day as a toy of endless fascination. Some people, though, take their kites very seriously, and at the Berkeley Kite Festival yesterday, I saw huge kites, professional kites, and rare kites, alongside the everyday ones I remember from my childhood. 

Fishes Kite - Berkeley Festival - Atlas Obscura Blog

The Berkeley Kite Festival is held at the end of July each year in Cesar Chavez Park, an outcrop of land in the San Francisco Bay ideal for kite-flying. The steady winds can lift the heaviest, largest kites with ease.

Kite Ballet drew the largest crowds, as triangular kites danced through the sky in unison and in contrasting patterns. These are not electronically programmed, but rather require skilled kite flyers who dance like their kites to control their every move with two strings attached to the lower corners of the kites. The performance is coordinated to music like The Flight of the Bumblebee.

Berkeley Kite Festival From Afar - Atlas Obscura Blog

2010’s Berkeley Kite Festival, as seen from afar. 

Many kites on display were intimidating if only for their size. “Squeaky the Octopus” was out in full force, with more than five gargantuan octopi flying at the same time. Smaller, more geometrically interesting kites caught my eye in the midst of the larger ones. One kite, shown in video below, both flew and had a spinning tail!

Twirling Kite - Berkeley Kite Festival 2010 from sarah brumble on Vimeo.

The professional kite flyers that came to put on the show are strong and fast as they anchor their larger-than-life kites. The large kites had a two-person team to control them. One would be in charge of maintaining string length with a coil and the other would wrestle the wind and the kite to maintain its height and stability.

The rarest kites on display were the “Machijirushi“ from Hamamatsu in Southern Japan. Though most modern kites are polyester or ripstop nylon, the Machijirushi are traditional kites of bamboo and very thin paper.

If anyone else was lucky enough to join me in the Festival, please share your favorite stories and pictures from the day!