Origami Heaven

A paperfolding paradise

The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell


The Paper Plane
This page contains information about the early history of, and early literary references to, paper planes. I am always happy to receive further information and references on this subject.

It is commonly stated that paper planes originated in China over 2000 years ago as a development of paper kites. I can find no evidence whatsoever to back up this assertion.

Models made partly of paper do seem to have been used by many pioneers of flight to investigate the properties of various types of designs but there is no evidence that these were paper planes per se.

The earliest published instructions for making any true paper plane that I know of are to be found in Every Little Boy's Book, first published by Routledge, Warne and Routledge in 1864. It contains a picture of the traditional paper dart and the words, 'To form this dart you must take an oblong piece of paper, and fold it down the middle lengthwise; then double each of the lower corners up to the middle crease, and fold the doubled paper over to the same mark; you must now turn each folded side outwards, and your dart will resemble the annexed figure. The paper dart, when thrown from the hand, rarely hits the object aimed at, as it generally makes a graceful curve in passing through the air. Boys sometimes amuse themselves by fighting sham battles with these harmless weapons.'

In his book Paper: Paging Through History, Mark Kurlansky reports that 'In 1881, the New York Stock Exchange declared it would impose a dollar fine on anyone caught throwing a paper dart at a member while the exchange was in session.' I have, however, been unable to track down the source on which this assertion is based.

Cassell's Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, first published in 1882, also contained instructions for making the paper dart, which are clearly based on the earlier publication in Every Little Boy's Book cited above. The introduction states, 'The paper dart is one of the easiest made of the paper toys, and when made will last some time, if put only to its legitimate use. It is best made of a piece of good, stout paper ...''

Volume 8, Issue 3, of the Downside Review for November 1889 contained an article entitled 'On Certain Rages at Downside' which is said to contain the words, 'a paper dart has glided noiselessly down the room, amidst the suppressed applause and smothered hilarity of the students.' I have not been able to verify this from the original source.

In the novel David Blaize, first published by Stodder and Houghton in 1916, E F Benson wrote 'He had finished his letter with remarkable speed and had, by writing small, conveyed sufficient information to her on a half-sheet. There was thus the other half-sheet, noiselessly torn off, to be framed into munitions of aerial warfare. He folded it neatly into the form of a dart, he inked the point by dipping it into the china receptacle at the top of his desk, and launched it with unerring aim, enfilading the cross-bench where David sat.' This appears to be a description of the folding and launch of a genuine paper plane.

According to Wikipedia, p38 of the book The Wind and Beyond written by Theodore von Kármán with Lee Edson, published in 1967 by Little, Brown and Company contained the following description of the folding of a paper plane by Ludwig Prandtl at the 1924 banquet of the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics. 'Prandtl was also somewhat impulsive. I recall that on one occasion at a rather dignified dinner meeting following a conference in Delft, Holland, my sister, who sat next to him at the table, asked him a question on the mechanics of flight. He started to explain; in the course of it he picked up a paper menu and fashioned a small model airplane, without thinking where he was. It landed on the shirtfront of the French Minister of Education, much to the embarrassment of my sister and others at the banquet.' I have not been able to locate this source to check the reference.

Murray and Rigney's Fun with Paper Folding, first published in 1928, contained diagrams for a two sheet paper plane design in which one sheet forms the wings and another the tail. This design is sometimes known as the Swallow.

Margaret Campbell's Paper Toy Making, first published in 1936, contains diagrams for the traditional paper dart but also a version of the Swallow design in which the tail is shaped by curving cuts rather than straight folds.

In Coming Up For Air, first published in 1939 George Orwell wrote 'And I got inky fingers and bit my nails and made darts out of penholders and played conkers ...' (p69 of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition). I do not know what darts made out of penholders would look like but perhaps they were similar to the trove of paper darts which the Daily Mail online edition reported on 8th March 2012 had been found during renovations to St Anne's Chapel at Barnstaple. These paper darts were waterbomb bases to which pen nibs had been attached as weights. While they cannot be definitively dated the style of writing on the paper that had been used suggests they were perhaps up to a hundred years old.