The History of Paper Airplanes

June 22, 2016 by Erin Behan

Learning how to fold a paper airplane is a childhood rite of passage that has, for several generations now, been passed on from elder to younger as a way to stay entertained with just a single sheet of paper. There are books on the subject — The World Record Paper Airplane Book is a good one — and just about anyone can make paper airplanes that glide, loop, turn, dive and do all sorts of crazy tricks.

The History of Paper Aiplanes
Paper airplanes aren’t just kids' stuff. The current Guinness World Record holder for the longest paper airplane flight goes one that traveled 226 feet, 10 inches (69.14 meters) on February 26, 2012. It was made from a single sheet of uncut A4 paper by John M. Collins (The Paper Airplane Guy) that was tossed by professional football player Joe Ayoob.

But who threw the first paper airplane? Paper airplanes, of course, couldn’t exist without paper, which was first created in China, around AD 105 (for more on that, see our post on The History of Paper). Most experts agree that the Chinese, whose paper folding art is called zhezhi, likely experimented with folding paper that flew or floated through the air around 500 BC when the art took off. Japanese paper folding, origami, probably also incorporated something like a folded glider around this same time.

It seems, though, that the pursuit of flight, and not art, is what helped paper airplanes take off. In one of his notebooks, Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), whose ideas were precursors to the modern airplane, reported testing out his ornithopter design with a model made of parchment. The machine, however, used flapping wings and not gliding as its principal of staying aloft.

Fast forward to the English squire Sir George Cayley, who around 1800 demonstrating an understanding of lift and thrust with small model gliders made of linen. He attached them to poles, which he then flung from a hillside near his home. In 1804 he built and flew a glider that’s considered history’s first real airplane. He improved upon it, and in 1849 a Cayley glider flew a human-controlled mission.

The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, took full advantage of models (reportedly paper and otherwise) and flew them in wind tunnels between 1899 and 1903. This period of experimentation eventually resulted in the Wright Flyer, the first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft.

In more recent history, paper airplanes have once again regained their status as art worthy of attention. Two worth noting are Japanese professor Yasuaki Ninomiya, who got his start at the 1967 Scientific American First Great International Paper Airplane Contest (he won the grand prize in both duration and distance flights), and South African Professor E.H. Mathews, who has written several books on high-performance model aircraft.

Feeling inspired? Check out FoldnFly, which has a long list of paper airplanes (with step-by-step instructions) on its website.

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Erin Behan

Written by Erin Behan

Erin Behan is an L.A.-based writer and editor who considers fine paper one of life's little pleasures.


Visit Distinct Papers to buy high-quality paper or card stock for your next project or to find the right copy paper, correspondence stationery and envelopes.


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