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One for the books...

Did people make paper airplanes before real planes? Yes and no. They were called paper darts before airplanes became part of our vocabulary. So, in a way, paper airplanes only happened after the Wright Brothers.

However, there are books dating back to 1864 (that’s right—civil war era) that contain instructions for paper darts. At least 40 years before the invention of powered, controllable, human aviation, Americans were throwing paper darts around.

Paper darts may date much farther back. Leonardo Da Vinci describes making paper darts from parchment, so that gets us back to the late 1400s or early 1500s AD. His drawings get up-close to the concept of turbulent and laminar flow. His observational skills were amazing. The Chinese, having invented paper about 2,000 years ago, are generally credited with having folded the first paper airplanes. It’s only an assumption built around the idea that they actually invented paper kites. It’s not much of a stretch to believe they may have come up with a paper airplane in their experiments. There’s no solid evidence either way.

I’m always a bit amused by finding such an obvious “seam in the zone”. The history of paper flight is clearly missing from our books and collected knowledge. It may have been so commonplace, from the dawn of paper, that it was hardly worth mentioning. Paper was once a very valuable commodity; rare and difficult to make. So much so, that a mere strip of paper wrapping would’ve almost certainly been worth more than the value of the gift. Immediately adopting of the invention of paper as the date of inventing the paper airplane seems a bit off.

I imagine that paper folding and paper planes came tumbling into existence with scraps of discarded paper. Folding a piece of paper is such an organic experiment. We break a blade of grass or a leaf as youngsters to simply experience the limits of the material. It’s part of learning about the world. We may never know about the very first paper airplane. One day, an ancient Egyptian text may be unearthed showing a paper airplane. One day, perhaps an ancient Chinese tablet will reveal a folded dart. That will only deepen the mystery, which is certainly one for the books.

In the same way that paper darts gave way to paper airplanes, so too, did the ballistic dart give way to the gliding design for the distance record. The evolution is not complete. It’s only in progress. Some new, great hybrid design may be in the works. And that will be one for the books as well.


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