Patrick Chaplin: Darts History

one hundred years of the paper flight

The month of November 2000 passed quietly by for most darts players around the world, with most not knowing that that month we all should have been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first patent of the paper dart flight.

Until the end of the nineteenth century the majority of darts thrown in inns and taverns in this country and utilised in fairgrounds were imported from France. The French darts were made of wood, had a needle point, sometimes with a lead weight round the outside for better balance and always three or four turkey feathers as flights.

Darts is often described as “a traditional English pub game” and, therefore, it would seem logical that any new inventions relating to the game, especially at the turn of the century, would come from, at least, within the British Isles.

The Actual Patent Application Dated November 1st, 1898

Itl, therefore, came as some surprise to anyone interested in the history of darts to discover in Derek Brown’s The Guinness Book of Darts (Enfield: Guinness Superlatives Ltd., 1981) that 'an American patented a folded paper flight in 1898'. Unfortunately Derek offered up no further details.

One of the great things about undertaking research into the history of darts is that, occasionally, I come across people who are as interested in the history of our sport as I am. Thus I am indebted to two of these enthusiasts, Marc Van Den Avond of Belgium and Steve Jara of the USA, for providing me with the information that follows.

Yes, the paper flight is an American invention. The inventor’s name was Nathan P. McKenney, of Dixon, in the County of Lee, Illinois. Nathan filed his application of 11 March 1898 and the specification, forming part of Letters Patent No. 613,386 was approved on 1 November 1898.

Those who know about darts in America will tell you that it did not really expand into a game to be played in bars until the mid-twentieth century, so what was Nathan doing filing his application for a dart flight patent? The answer is simple. His patent was for an improvement to a toy. McKenney wrote:

“My invention relates to toys and games, and particularly to a game apparatus of the ‘dart and target’ type, and has for its object to provide a dart, adapted to be projected manually, whereof the feather is of four-wing construction and is formed from a foldable blank of paper or other flexible material to adapt it to be replaced with facility”.

McKenney’s invention was simple enough. The illustration here, extracted from the USA Patent Office files, shows not only the paper flight and how to fold it, but also the type of darts and targets which were being used, at least by children, in the USA at the time.

Flights of either paper or feathers are rarely seen on the oches of the world these days but, of course, the materials used have diversified including plastic, vulcanised material and polyester.

At the time of writing the original version of this article (1998) Belgium's Marc Van den Avond was one of the world’s greatest collector of darts flights (technical term “belopterophilist”) having more than 18,000 different flights. He was clearly very excited when McKenney’s patent was traced. Marc told me: “I have collected flights for many years and have always wanted to know who the man was who invented the paper flight. Thanks to Steve Jara I now know that it was Nathan P. McKenney.”

Back in 1998 I ended this article by writing 'So while darters across the globe are celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the BDO and Darts World magazine and the 21st year of the Embassy, let us just spare Nathan P. McKenney “a citizen of the United States”, a thought or two and thank him, 100 years on, for playing his part in the development of a game now loved and played today by millions across the globe.'

And that is how darts research works best with enthusiasts sharing information in order to piece together aspects of the history of the sport.

Original research © 1998 Patrick Chaplin (Updated by Patrick on 4th July 2012

© 2007 Patrick Chaplin