The most colourful of all pioneering aviators must surely be the American born Samuel Franklin Cody. When, in 1890, he first arrived in Europe it was as a Wild West Showman appearing in music halls with a trick shooting and fancy roping act. He later ventured into the world of the Wild West melodrama which was so popular with the audiences of the day and having conquered the English stage, he moved on to conquer the air.
Over a period of several years Cody developed a deep interest in kite flying and his success in the theatre provided the finance to progress this interest from a hobby to an aerial system of great practical value. For a while his theatrical and kiting interests coincided but gradually more and more of his time was concentrated on to the latter and ultimately led to the development of a sophisticated system of man lifting kites. By 1901 he was sufficiently confident in this system to attempt to gain the interest of the British War Office in its use for observation. It was not, however, until 1905 that they accepted the value of kites to the Army at which time Cody was given the post of Kite Instructor to the Royal Engineers’ Balloon School at Aldershot.
The relationship between Cody and the Army was a rather uneasy affair with difficulties on both sides. Cody must have felt greatly restrained by the Army’s rules and regulations and for their part, the Army must have found it difficult to accept this flamboyant American who, although now severed from his theatrical life, still retained the appearance of a showman.
His man lifting kite system having proved successful Cody progressed to the creation of a glider kite and, soon after, a motor kite with the ultimate intention of developing a piloted, powered aircraft. Although the Wright Brothers had been flying for a number of years it was difficult to interest the British Government, whose primary interest lay in airships, in financing the building of aeroplanes. In 1907 Cody was called upon to work on the Army’s first dirigible balloon, the Nulli Secundus, but by the latter part of that year he was free to concentrate on the completion of his aeroplane which, on the 16th October 1908 made the first official flight of a heavier than air machine in the British Isles. Early in 1909, the British War Office, in their wisdom, then decided that there was no future in aeroplanes and Cody’s contract with the Army was terminated.
From then on Cody continued working on his aircraft without official monetary backing and without the assistance of Army manpower. Relying entirely on the help of family and friends and his own financial resources he went on to break many records, win a number of trophies and suffer several crashes.
He was always a popular hero with the British public, crowds gathered wherever he appeared and although in 1909 he became a British citizen he still looked every inch the American showman. On 7th August 1913, when flying over Ball Hill, Farnborough, Cody’s machine broke up in the air and he and his passenger Mr. W.H.B. Evans were both killed. The first civilian to be buried in the Aldershot Military Cemetery, his funeral was a magnificent occasion in which he was afforded all military honours possible in recognition of the services he had rendered to British aviation.
When I first began researching the life of S.F. Cody I naturally read all that I could concerning him. Books, magazines and newspaper articles all told of his birth in 1861 (sometimes 1862) in Birdville, Texas and of his very colourful early life spent on his father’s farm. This happy childhood, spent horse riding, lassoing, playing with kites etc. had come to an unhappy end when his family home was attacked by Indians and most of his family had been killed. Luckily Cody had been away from home at the time. There followed a life full of excitement, herding cattle, gold prospecting in the Klondike, taming horses…. You name it and Cody had most certainly done it.
Colourful as these stories were there were several instances
of inconsistency. In addition it had always seemed a great coincidence
that S.F. Cody had the same surname as Buffalo Bill – W.F. Cody – not
to mention their similarity in appearance with both men wearing western clothes,
with long flowing hair and a beard and waxed moustache. Doubt over Cody’s
surname plus the fact that Birdville could find no trace of a Cody family for
the correct period led me to embark on many years of research until it came
to light that Cody’s correct surname was Cowdery, his birthplace was
Davenport, Iowa and his year of birth 1867.
The change of surname was, I assume, purely for theatrical purposes. His often mistaken identity for Buffalo Bill was to prove useful in gaining employment and audiences. He was a very difficult person to research as the majority of the accepted facts of his early life proved to be incorrect and therefore misleading. Nevertheless the character that emerged was of a kind, generous man, indomitable and courageous with a showman’s flair that never left him. There is still today a great interest in Cody, particularly amongst kite flyers who appreciate the excellent design of his man lifting kites. The world of aviation is, I think less appreciative, suggesting perhaps that had he lived longer he would have been left behind by mass produced aeroplanes. I like to think that Cody would have reinvented himself, looked to see which way the world was going and remained one step ahead.