Did the Ancient Egyptians have flying machines? Well if you count kites as flying machines maybe they did.
Researchers Lift Obelisk With Kite to Test Theory on Ancient Pyramids
July 6, 2001
PALMDALE, California—When people think about the building of the Egyptian pyramids, they probably have a mental image of thousands of slaves laboriously rolling massive stone blocks into place with logs and levers. But one Caltech aeronautics professor has set out to demonstrate that the task could have been accomplished by several people using a kite to move the heavy stones.
On June 23, Mory Gharib and his team raised a 6,900-pound (3132.6 kg), 15-foot (3.0 m) obelisk
into vertical position in the desert near Palmdale by using only a kite, a pulley system, and a support
frame. Although the blustery winds were gusting
up to 22 miles (35.4 km) per hour, the team set the
obelisk upright on their second attempt.
"It actually lifted up the kite flyer, Eric May, so we
had to kill the kite quickly," said Gharib. "But we
finished it off the second time."
Emilio Castano Graff, a Caltech undergraduate who
tackled the problem under the sponsorship of the
Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship
program, was also pleased with the results. "The wind
wasn't that great, but basically we're happy with it,"
Despite the lack of a steady breeze, the team raised
the obelisk in about 25 seconds—so quickly that the
concrete-and-rebar object was lifted off the ground
and swung free for a few seconds. Once the motion
had stabilized, the team lowered the obelisk into an
Gharib has been working on the project since local
business consultant Maureen Clemmons contacted
him and his Caltech aeronautics colleagues two years
ago. Clemmons had seen a picture in Smithsonian
magazine in 1997 of an obelisk being raised, and came
up with the idea that the ancient Egyptian builders
could have used kites to accomplish the task more
easily. All she needed was an aeronautics expert with
the proper credentials to field-test her theory.
Project Born of a Passion
Clemmons' kite theory was a major departure from
conventional thinking, which holds that thousands of
slaves used little more than brute force and log-rolling
to put the stone blocks and obelisks in place. No one
has ever come up with a substantially better system
for accomplishing the task, and even today the
moving of heavy stones would be quite
labor-intensive without power equipment.
As an indication of how little progress was made in the
centuries after the age of the pyramids had passed,
Gharib points out, the Vatican in 1586 moved a
330-ton Egyptian obelisk to St. Peter's Square. It is
known that lifting the stone into vertical position
required 74 horses and 900 men using ropes and
Although Clemmons has no scientific or archaeological
training, she has managed to marshal the efforts of
family, friends, and other enthusiasts to work on a
theory that could alter thinking about ancient
engineering practices—and the interpretation of
Researching the tools available to the Egyptian
pyramid builders, she discovered, for example, that a
brass ankh—long assumed to be merely a religious
symbol—makes a very good carabiner for controlling
a kite line. And a type of insect commonly found in
Egypt could have supplied a kind of shellac that
helped linen sails hold wind.
The test team views the use of a pulley as an
intermediate step only, and has planned to shift to a
reliance on windlasses like those that apparently were
used to hoist sails on Egyptian ships.
"The whole approach has been to downgrade the
technology," Gharib said. "We first wanted to show
that a kite could raise a huge weight at all. Now that
we're raising larger and larger stones, we're also
preparing to replace the steel scaffolding with wooden
poles and the steel pulleys with wooden pulleys like
the ones they may have used on Egyptian ships."
For Gharib, the idea of accomplishing heavy tasks
with limited manpower is appealing from an
engineer's standpoint because it makes more logistical
"You can imagine how hard it is to coordinate the
activities of hundreds if not thousands of laborers to
accomplish an intricate task," said Gharib. "It's one
thing to send thousands of soldiers to attack another
army on a battlefield. But an engineering project
requires everything to be put precisely into place.
"I prefer to think of the technology as simple, with
relatively few people involved," he explained.
Gharib and Graff came up with a way of building a
simple structure around the obelisk, with a pulley
system mounted in front of the stone. That way, the
base of the obelisk would drag on the ground for a few
feet as the kite lifted the stone, and the stone would
be quite stable once it was pulled upright into a
vertical position. If the obelisk were raised with the
base as a pivot, the stone would tend to swing past the
vertical position and fall the other way.
The top of the obelisk is tied with ropes threaded
through the pulleys and attached to the kite. The
operation is guided by a couple of workers using ropes
attached to the pulleys.
No one has found any evidence that the ancient
Egyptians moved stones or any other objects with
kites and pulleys. But Clemmons has found some
tantalizing hints that the project is on the right track.
On a building frieze in a Cairo museum, there is a wing
pattern in bas-relief that does not resemble any living
bird. Directly below are several men standing near
vertical objects that could be ropes.
Gharib's interest in the project is mainly to
demonstrate that the technique may be viable.
"We're not Egyptologists," he said. "We're mainly
interested in determining whether there is a
possibility that the Egyptians were aware of wind
power, and whether they used it to make their lives
Now that Gharib and his team have successfully
raised the four-ton concrete obelisk, they plan to
further test the approach using a ten-ton stone, and
perhaps an even heavier one after that. Eventually
they hope to obtain permission to try using their
technique to raise one of the obelisks that still lie in an
"In fact, we may not even need a kite. It could be we
can get along with just a drag chute," Gharib said.
An important question is: Was there enough wind in
Egypt for a kite or a drag chute to fly? Probably so, as
steady winds of up to 30 miles per hour are not
unusual in the areas where pyramids and obelisks
(c) 2001 Caltech
obtained from the website http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news ... elisk.html