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Dear Wise One:

Can you tell me the history of the paper airplane? I know the first airplanes and gliders were glorified box kites. I also am aware that sheet paper has been around for centuries. When did someone fold up a sheet and toss it at a teacher? Did it look like the Wright Flyer or the sleek delta fighter jet we all made in second grade?

-- John Neumann, Houston, Texas

The first flying paper was indeed a Chinese kite, about 2000 years ago. It was the French in the 1870s who made the first paper toys based on the idea of flight: paper and feather ornithopters, fanciful helicopters, balloons, and eventually airships. They were printed on sheets of heavy paper intended to be cut out and assembled. French toy makers also offered one of the first models of the Wrights' plane in 1908. But if we're talking about the popular homemade toy, the teacher tormentor, -- the classic seven-fold dart paper airplane-- there's no clear history. First references go back to about 1910; they were well known to kids by 1915 or so. And by 1930, Jack Northrop was using them to experiment with designs for flying wings. If some early ancestor made and flew a dart, it would probably have been a Muslim, not a descendant of the Asian style of paper folding. Chinese and Japanese forms were primarily artistic or symbolic. Arabic forms were used to explore principles of mathematics and geometry. So I guess it's historically correct if you're fond of sailing paper airplanes at your math teacher's head.

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