Samuel Cody

I may say that I have achieved some success as a result of my scientific studies. The limit of my success, however, is bound by the limit of my capital. -- Sam Cody

... [an] extremely daring and original character, in turn cowboy, actor, kite inventor, balloonist and aviator. -- Major C C Turner, The Old Flying Days

Excuse the liberty I am taking in writing, I believe I posses certain secrets that would be of use to the government in the way of Kite Flying. -- Sam Cody

What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? -- Henry James

Samuel Franklin Cody, Texan(?), cowboy, Wild West showman, pioneer aviator, a larger than life character, a name inextricably linked with Farnborough Airfield, HM Balloon Factory, RAE, kite flying, the founder of aviation and manned flight within England, and yet paradoxically for such a larger than life character he remains virtually unknown outside of Farnborough where he conducted his exploits.

Sam Cody straddles two continents, two eras. The Wild West of America, where he rode the same cattle trails as Buffalo Bill, played the same roulette tables in Dodge City as Wyatt Earp, and competed with Annie Oakley at sharp shooting; the early aviation days shared with the Wright Brothers that were the foundation of today's aviation industry and led to Farnborough being synonymous with flying.

One of the biggest problems with a larger than life character like Cody is separating fact from fiction, especially when many of the 'facts' are contradictory and turn out to be myth and fantasy.

Sam Cody's origins, before he arrived in England, are shrouded in mystery, even down to the fact that Samuel Franklin Cody appears not to exist but is believed be Franklin Cowdery of Davenport, Iowa, born 1867, one of a family of five children. Cowdery's father, a Union veteran from the American Civil War, deserted the family in 1875.

Cowdery married Maud Lee in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and the name Samuel Franklin Cody appears on the marriage certificate (1889). Cody/Cowdery performed cowboy double acts with his wife Maud - demonstrations of rifle and pistol sharpshooting and horsemanship.

Around this time, Cody was carrying out kite experiments for the US Government at the Blue Hill Observatory, Massachusetts.

Maud is thought to have joined Cody in Europe, injured herself falling out of a balloon, and been dispatched by Cody back to the US. Maud ended up in a lunatic asylum. She resurfaces again in 1913, following Cody's death, when her family try to stake a claim to the Cody fortune.

Whilst in England, Cody picked up a common-law wife Lela, by general consent, usually assumed to be his legal wife.

Colonel Sam Cody arrived in England at the age of 34 as a cowboy and Wild West showman. When he failed to pull the crowds he turned to other interests and activities, one of which was kites and large man-lifting kites.

Cody patented a two-celled box kite (1901) following a similar design by Lawrence Hargrave, the main difference being that Cody added wings for lift. This was the basic Cody 'bat' kite, of which there are many variations, it is considered by kite enthusiasts to be one of the most beautiful kites ever designed. Cody's original aim was to provide a man-lifting system for observation purposes during the Boer War in South Africa, an idea later taken up by the British military.

A large exhibition of the Cody Kites took place at Alexandra Place (1903).

In 1903, Cody succeeded in crossing the English Channel in a canvas canoe, towed by one of his large kites. His exploits came to the attention of the Admiralty who engaged him to look into the military possibilities of using kites for observation posts.

Man-lifting kites were demonstrated to the Admiralty in 1903 and 1908. Cody gave demonstrations off the deck of the battleship HMS Revenge (2 September 1908).

The man-lifting kites were highly successful, Capt Broke-Smith RE and Leon Cody reached heights of 3,400 feet in kites designed by Cody. The Army were sufficiently impressed to engage Cody as Chief Instructor in Kiting at the Balloon School in Aldershot (1906). Cody was charged with the formation of two kite sections of the Royal Engineers (these were later to form the nucleus of Air Battalion RE, later to become No 1 Squadron Flying Corps, then finally No 1 Squadron RAF).

In 1905, Cody built his first glider kite, a derivation of his man-lifting kites. These were first flown at Crystal Place. In the summer of 1905, from Jubilee Hill, Long Valley, Cody made his longest glide of 740 feet with a drop of 350 feet. The kite was not rebuilt following a crash.

On 5 October 1907, the first military airship, Nulli Secundus, designed by Col J E Capper RE and Sam Cody, with themselves and Lieut C M Waterloo on board, made a world record-breaking flight of 3 hours 25 minutes from Aldershot to London. After circling St Paul's, they attempted to return to Aldershot, but were defeated by 18 mph headwinds and forced to land at Crystal Palace.

In the same year, Cody turned his attention to powered flight. A 12-hp engine was fitted to one of his man-lifting kites, and with this lash-up he was able to make a powered flight on Laffan's Plain. Following this success, Cody built a powered aircraft hoping to use the engine from the ill-fated Nulli Secundus II (in this he was disappointed, being forced to purchase a second Antoinette engine, and being evicted from the relatively well equipped airship shed). In this aircraft, entitled British Army Aeroplane No 1, Cody was able to make a series of very short 'flights' over the period September to October 1908. On 16 October 1908, the fifth, which ended in a crash, was the first officially recorded powered flight - a length of 1,390 feet.

The Broomfield Myth attributes Cody as having made a series of five flights on 16 May 1908. No official record exists of these flights, though both the RAE and the Science Museum were happy to perpetuate the myth at the time. The myth was eventually exposed by Perry B Walker, using research by Lacey and C H Gibbs Smith (Science Museum) and Bray (RAE Library). [A detailed account of the controversy can be found in Early Aviation at Farnborough: The First Aeroplanes]

Cody's exploits came to the attention of Haldane, Secretary of State for War. Demonstrating the foresight that politician and civil servants are renowned for, especially those at the MoD, Haldane terminated Cody's contract, as he could see no future or military use for aircraft.

Cody continued on his own. He was given his broken aircraft, and allowed to use Laffan's Plain for his test flights. Using his rebuilt plane, Cody carried passengers for the first time (14 August 1909) - Col Capper, first passenger, Lela Cody, first female passenger (both world records). Cody then made a world-record cross-country flight of 1 hour 3 minutes (5 September 1909).

In 1910, using a newly-built aircraft, Cody won the prestigious Michelin Cup with a flight of 4 hours 47 minutes. In the same year, with a different aircraft, Cody's design was the only British plane to complete the round-England race - Cody finished fourth.

The aircraft that finished the round-England circuit, suitably strengthened and fitted with a new 120-hp engine won the Military Trials on Salisbury Plain (1912). Cody won a prize of 5,000 and was able to sell his plane to the Government.

Shortly after these trials, Cody was recognised during a performance at the Theatre Royal and asked to give a speech from the box. He said he did not like war, but he would continue with his work on his weapons of war as he saw them as being the ultimate deterrent that would deter war. His sentiments had echoes in the words of the scientists who half a century later would work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos to develop the world's first atomic bomb, ironically dropped from an aircraft. Many of these same scientists refused to work on the Hydrogen Bomb, which they saw as unnecessary and a step too far. Robert Oppenheimer, 'father of the atomic bomb', was publicly humiliated and disgraced for his refusal to work on the development of the hydrogen bomb, a decade later, at J F Kennedy's instigation, rehabilitated and honoured, with the award of the Enrico Fermi Prize by President Lyndon B Johnson. Claude Eatherly, who commanded the path-finder aircraft that lit the way for the bombing of Hiroshima, who gave the order 'Bomb primary', saw nuclear weapons as a step too far. When the aircrews returned Claude Eatherly refused to take part in the celebrations, he did not want to be a hero. Later, when he denounced the US use of atomic weapons and spoke at public rallies, he was immediately, with the connivance of his family, certified as insane and locked away.

On 7 August 1913, Samuel Cody was killed in a crash whilst joy-riding across Laffan's Plain. His seaplane broke in half 500 ft above Ball Hill. Cody and his passenger, the cricketer W H B Evans, were pronounced dead on arrival at the Connaught Hospital. The funeral procession, his coffin was on a gun carriage drawn by six coal-black horses, drew an estimated crowd of 100,000. He was buried with full military honours in the Aldershot Military Cemetery. His family still live within the area.

There used to exist at the end of the runway a tree, Cody's Tree, to which Cody used to tie his plane - old cowboy habits die hard.

The Drachen Foundation held the first Cody Symposium at the Dieppe Kite Festival, in France (first and second weekend September 1998).

Though hard to believe, there exists a Cody cult, interested in making exact replicas of his kites using original materials.

References and further information

A couple of books on Cody were published in the 1950s, unfortunately for the serious student, they are poorly researched and fail to distinguish between myth and reality. A more recent book by Garry Jenkins appears well researched, unfortunately the value of the book is much diminished by his failure to list sources or give any references, it also a has a very poor index. A Samuel Cody Gallery opened in the Aldershot Military Museum (16 October 1998 to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of Cody's first officially recorded flight).

Howard N Cole, The Story of Aldershot, 1951

Peter J Cooper, Forever Farnborough: Flying the Limits 1904-1906, Hikoki Publications, 1996

Garry Jenkins, 'Colonel' Cody and the Flying Cathedral: The Adventures of the Cowboy Who Conquered Britain's Skies, Simon & Schuster, 1999

Perry B Walker, Early Aviation at Farnborough: The First Aeroplanes, Macdonald, 1974

Surrey-Hants ~ Aldershot ~ Farnborough ~ Farnborough Airfield
(c) Keith Parkins 1998-2000 -- February 2000 rev 2