The Lister List

Paper Planes

On 4th December Martin Gibbs asked for help in finding instructions for a paper plane made from an A4 sheet cut into two pieces. One of the pieces was folded into a waterbomb base and became the front end of the plane, while the other piece became the tail.

I feel somewhat surprised that this particular model has proved to be so elusive. It was one of the first folds I ever knew some 65 years ago, having been shown to me by my father. It was also popular in variant forms at school. Some kinds had a simple folded over nose, whereas others used what later to be called "rabbit ears" to form an elegant sharp point at the front of the plane. The way in which this point was made was one of the factors that made paperfolding so fascinating for me. It sealed may fate and the paper plane still fascinates me. There was no A4 paper in those days, but most writing paper came in rectangles so I used to fold a diagonal fold to form a square. This was folded into what is now known as a waterbomb base. the surplus was cut off to form the tail, which was eventually slotted into the waterbomb base before finally folding over the nose of the plane.

Joshua Koppel also knew the fold when he was young and gave written instructions for folding it. He later said that he thought that it was in a book that also had a pagoda tower and a steamship. Maarten van Gelder recognised this book as Maying Soong's "The Art of Chinese Paper Folding"(1948).

I have looked at Maying Soong's book and it certainly has the Chinese Pagoda. it also has a model called "Steamboats", although this fold is not related to the Pagoda. Mme. Soong also has also a glider which she calls "A Bird which Flies off your Hand". It is not, however, the two-piece glider or plane we are talking about and the two-piece plane does not appear anywhere in her book.

The "two piece" plane is also known as a plane or a glider or as a swallow and used to be a widely known paper model. I'm surprised it seems to have been forgotten by some of today's folders. It appears in many old books, as, for instance in "Johanna Huber's German book, "Lustiges Papierfaltbuchlein" as well as Spanish books..

A simplified version is also shown in Margaret Campbell's "Paper Toy Making" (1937), although without the rabbit-ear pointed nose.

The version with the "rabbit ear" pointed nose" does appear in Robert Harbin's "Paper Magic" (1956), where it comes under the title "Gliders". For aerodynamic reasons, Robert Harbin cuts a square hole in the tail, but apart from this, his plane is what I would call the classic version.

Of the two versions on the Web sites, that of Alex Schultz is fairly close to the classic form, except that his rabbit ears and the resulting point are drawn too narrow and he also folds the main body of the plane from a rectangle instead of a square.

In his web site, Peter Kunzmann also folds the main body of his plane from a rectangle, but he doesn't have the elegant rabbit-ear point. The front point of the waterbomb base is merely folded back. I remember that when I was at school some boys adopted this simplified method and I smugly thought that it was very inferior to the one I had been taught to fold. Peter Kunzmann calls his version "The Bat", although it doesn't much resemble a living bat. The simplified version still flies quite well. The classic version can fly very well indeed, but it is temperamental and smooth flight depends on the way the tail is adjusted.

What I have described as "the Classic Version" is most interesting for its use of the rabbit ear. As far as I can see, it is one of the first instances of the use of this move in paperfolding. (It was not the only instance - the move also comes in the traditional bellows - see Harbin, "Paper Magic" page 69).

Robert Harbin identified a number of classic moves in paperfolding, including Reverse Folds, Squash Folds, Petal Folds and Crimps and at one time I was under the impression that he also introduced the term "Rabbit Ear". But while, in "Paper Magic" he does use the rabbit ear and describes how it is made, he doesn't use the actual term, "Rabbit Ear". This term was introduced by Sam Randlett in his book "The Art of Origami (1961). But it must be remembered that Sam Randlett and Robert Harbin conducted a long correspondence during the writing of "The Art of Origami" and Sam certainly adopted some of Robert Harbin's terms, so we cannot be sure how the term "rabbit ear" was arrived at.

In the classic version of the paper plane, the "rabbit ears" are quite short and stubby and some folders have preferred to use the term "mouse ear", which certainly seems more appropriate in this particular model but this is not the term that has stuck.

But quite apart from who named what and how, the way the point of the Plane, Glider or Swallow is formed after the folding of the two rabbit ears is one of the magical moves in origami and to my mind, one of the most simple and elegant in paperfolding. The old classic traditional folds can teach us much.

David Lister

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Rabbit by Stephen O'Hanlon