Samuel Franklin Cody

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Samuel Franklin Cody
Cody at some time in or after 1908
Born 6 March 1867 (1867-03-06)
Davenport, Iowa, USA
Died 7 August 1913(1913-08-07) (aged 46)
Farnborough, Hampshire, United Kingdom
Occupation Showman, aviator, aircraft designer

Samuel Franklin Cowdery (later known as Samuel Franklin Cody; 6 March 1867 – 7 August 1913, born Davenport, Iowa, USA[1]) was a Wild West showman and early pioneer of manned flight. He is most famous for his work on the large kites known as Cody War-Kites that were used by the British in World War I as a smaller alternative to balloons for artillery spotting. He was also the first man to fly an aeroplane in Britain, on 16 October 1908.[2][3] A flamboyant showman, he was often confused with Buffalo Bill Cody,[4] whose surname he took when young.

Early life[edit]

Cody's early life is difficult to separate from his own stories told later in life, but he was born Samuel Franklin Cowdery in 1867 in Davenport, Iowa,[5] where he attended school until the age of 12. Not much is known about his life at this time although he claimed that during his youth he had lived the typical life of a cowboy. He learned how to ride and train horses, shoot and use a lasso. He later claimed to have prospected for gold in an area which later became Dawson City, centre of the famous Klondike Gold Rush.


In 1888, at 21 years of age, Cody started touring the US with Forepaugh's Circus, which at the time had a large Wild West show component. He married Maud Maria Lee in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and the name Samuel Franklin Cody appears on the April, 1889 marriage certificate.

Cody in 1909

Cody, together with his wife Maud Maria Lee, toured England with a shooting act. Maud used the stage name Lillian Cody, which she kept for the rest of her performing career. In London they met Mrs Elizabeth Mary King (later known as Lela Marie Cody; née Elizabeth Mary Davis), wife of Edward John King, a licensed victualler, and mother of four children. Mrs King had stage ambitions for two of her younger children, Leon and Vivian King (later known as Leon and Vivian Cody). In 1891, Maud Maria Lee taught the boys how to shoot, but then later returned to the USA alone. Evidence suggests that by the autumn of 1891, Maud was unable to perform with her husband because of injury, morphine addiction, the onset of schizophrenia, or a combination of these ills.

After Maud returned to America, and around the time of Edward John King's death, Cody took up with Mrs King. While in England, the two lived together as husband and wife, and Mrs King, who used the name Lela Marie Cody, was generally assumed to be his legal wife. However, the marriage of Cody and Lee was never legally dissolved.

While in England, Cody, Lela and her sons toured the music halls, which were very popular at the time, giving demonstrations of his horse riding, shooting and lassoing skills. While touring Europe in the mid-1890s, Cody capitalized on the bicycle craze by staging a series of horse vs. bicycle races against famous cyclists. Cycling organizations quickly frowned on this practice, which drew accusations of fixed results. In 1898 Cody's stage show, The Klondyke Nugget, became very successful; it included Lela's eldest son Edward who was known as Edward Le Roy,[6] and her younger sons Leon and Vivian (King), who were known as Cody to save any embarrassment.[6]

One of Lela's great-grandsons (and the grandson of Lela's daughter Lizzy 'Liese' King with her husband Edward King) is the BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson.[6]


Man-lifter War Kite designed by Samuel Franklin Cody

It is not clear why Cody became fascinated by kite flying. Cody liked to recount a tale that he first became inspired by a Chinese cook; who, apparently, taught him to fly kites, whilst travelling along the old cattle trail.[7] However, it is more likely that Cody's interest in kites was kindled by his friendship with Auguste Gaudron, a balloonist Cody met while performing at Alexandra Palace. Cody showed an early interest in the creation of kites capable of flying to high altitudes and of carrying a man. Leon also became interested, and the two of them competed to make the largest kites capable of flying at ever-increasing heights. Vivian too became involved after a great deal of experimentation.

Financed by his shows, Cody significantly developed Lawrence Hargrave's double-cell box kite to increase its lifting power, especially by adding wings on either side. He also developed a sophisticated system of flying multiple kites up a single line, which was capable of ascending to many thousands of feet or of carrying several men in a gondola. He patented his design in 1901 and it became known as the Cody kite.

Balloons were then in use for meteorological and military observation, but could only be operated in light winds. Cody realised that kites, which can only be operated in stronger winds, would allow these activities to be carried out in a wider range of weather conditions. His kites were soon adopted for meteorology, and he was made a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society.[8]

In December 1901 he offered his design to the War Office as an observation "War Kite" for use in the Second Boer War, and made several demonstration flights of up to 2,000 ft in various places around London. A large exhibition of the Cody kites took place at Alexandra Palace in 1903. Later he succeeded in crossing the English Channel in a Berthon boat towed by one of his kites. His exploits came to the attention of the Admiralty, who hired him to look into the military possibilities of using kites for observation posts. He demonstrated them later that year, and again in 1908 when he flew off the deck of battleship HMS Revenge on September 2. The Admiralty eventually purchased four of his War Kites.[8]

In 1905, using a radically different design looking more like a tailless biplane, he devised and flew a manned "glider-kite". The machine was launched on a tether like a kite and the tether was then released to allow gliding flight. The design showed little similarity to his earlier kites but had more the appearance of a tailless biplane. It was notable in being the first aircraft to use ailerons (in fact they were elevons) effectively to control roll.[8]

Cody eventually managed to interest the British Army in his kites. In 1906 he was appointed Chief Instructor of Kiting for the Balloon School in Aldershot and soon after joined the new Army Balloon Factory down the road at Farnborough, along with his purported son Vivian. The Factory would eventually become the Royal Aircraft Establishment and Vivian Cody would go on to a long and successful career as a technical specialist.[8] In 1908 the War Office officially adopted Cody's kites for the Balloon Companies he had been training. This group would in due course evolve into the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers, No. 1 Company of which later became No. 1 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps and eventually No. 1 Squadron Royal Air Force.

Finally, in 1907 he created an unmanned "power-kite". Somewhat similar to his standard kite but with bigger wings and a tailplane with twin fins in place of the rear cell, this was fitted with a 15 hp Buchet engine. It was not allowed to fly free; Cody strung a long aerial wire down the length of the Farnborough Balloon Shed and flew it indoors.[8]

All that remained to him was to bring the manned-free-flying glider together with the power-kite's engine to create Britain's first aeroplane.

Nulli Secundus[edit]

Before Cody could turn his newfound skills to aeroplanes, he was required to help complete an airship then under construction in the Farnborough Airship Shed. In December 1906 he was despatched to France, where he purchased a 40 hp Antoinette engine. During 1907 he was given full authority as the designer of the airship's understructure and propulsion system. On October 5 British Army Dirigible No 1 Nulli Secundus, Britain's first powered airship, flew from Farnborough to London in 3 hours 25 minutes with Cody and his commanding officer Colonel J E Capper on board. After circling St Paul's Cathedral they attempted to return to Farnborough, but 18 mph headwinds forced them to land at Crystal Palace. There the airship was damaged by the high winds.[8]

Cody aeroplanes[edit]

The wreckage of Cody's fatal air crash
Gale and Polden postcard of Cody's funeral procession on 11 August 1913
The grave of Samuel Franklin Cody in Aldershot Military Cemetery

Later that year the Army decided to back the development of his powered aeroplane, the British Army Aeroplane No 1. After just under a year of construction he started testing the machine in September 1908, gradually lengthening his "hops" until they reached 1,390 ft (420 m) on 16 October.[9]

His flight of 16 October is recognised as the first official flight of a piloted heavier than air machine in Great Britain.[10] The machine had been damaged at the end of the 16 October flight. After repairs and extensive modifications Cody flew it again early the following year. But the War Office then decided to stop backing development of heavier-than-air aircraft, and Cody's contract with the Army ended in April 1909. Cody was given the aircraft, and continued to work on the aircraft at Farnborough, using Laffan's Plain for his test flights.

On May 14 he succeeded in flying the aircraft for over a mile, establishing the first official British distance and endurance records.[11] By August 1909 Cody had completed the last of his long series of modifications to the aircraft. Cody carried passengers for the first time on 14 August 1909, first his old workmate Capper, and then Lela Cody (Mrs Elizabeth Mary King).

On 29 December 1909 Cody became the first man to fly from Liverpool in an unsuccessful attempt to fly non-stop between Liverpool and Manchester. He set off from Aintree Racecourse at 12.16 p.m., but only nineteen minutes later was forced to land at Valencia Farm near to Eccleston Hill, St Helens, close to Prescot because of thick fog.[12]

On 7 June 1910 Cody received Royal Aero Club certificate number 9 using a newly built aircraft and later in the year won the Michelin Cup for the longest flight made in England during 1910 with a flight of 4 hours 47 minutes on 31 December. In 1911 a third aircraft was the only British machine to complete the Daily Mails "Circuit of Great Britain" air race, finishing fourth, for which achievement he was awarded the Silver Medal of the R.Ae.C. in 1912.[13] The Cody V machine with a new 120 hp (90 kW) engine won the £5,000 prize at the 1912 British Military Aeroplane Competition Military Trials on Salisbury Plain.

Cody continued to work on aircraft using his own funds. On 7 August 1913 he was test flying his latest design, the Cody Floatplane, when it broke up at 500 ft and he and his passenger (the cricketer William Evans) were both killed. He was buried with full military honours in the Aldershot Military Cemetery; the funeral procession drew an estimated crowd of 100,000.

Adjacent to Cody's own grave marker is a memorial to his only son, Samuel Franklin Leslie Cody, who joined the Royal Flying Corps and "fell in action fighting four enemy machines" in 1917.

A team of volunteer enthusiasts built a full-sized replica of British Army Aeroplane No 1 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first flight. It is on permanent display at the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum in Farnborough, UK.[14][15] The display is about three hundred metres from the take-off point of the historic flight.

In April 2013 two of Vivian Cody's (real name Vivian King) grandsons appeared on BBC One's Antiques Roadshow with two Michelin Trophies, won by Cody, each valued at £25,000 - £30,000.[16]

The Broomfield hoax[edit]

G. A. Broomfield had been an assistant and friend to Cody after he left the Army and moved to Laffan's Plain. In 1948 he presented to the Science Museum, Kensington a model of the No.1 machine which was wrong in many details.[17] He claimed that the first flight had been in May 1908. This was one month before a similar claimed first flight by A. V. Roe, and Bloomfield wanted to establish primacy for Cody.[18] Roe's claim was later disallowed, but by then Broomfield was too deep in his story to back out.

The next year, he made the same claim to the Royal Aircraft Establishment and caused a new plaque with the date of the 16th May to be made for the Cody Tree. The story first appeared in print in 1951 and again in 1952, in articles published by independent researchers. A fuller account of the fictitious day's flying appeared in Broomfield's biography of Cody, Pioneer of the Air, 1953. It was endorsed by Geoffrey de Havilland who provided the Foreword and C. G. Grey, editor of the journal Aeroplane, who wrote the Introduction. The hoax was not exposed until 1958, Britain's 50th anniversary of flight, when three investigators, G. W. B. Lacey from the Science Museum, A. T. E. Bray from the R.A.E. and the independent historian Charles Gibbs-Smith asked Broomfield for some clarifications.[19]



Cody's commemorative statue at the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum
  • When Cody was testing his first aeroplane, he tied it to a tree in order to assess the pulling power of its propeller. The tree became known as the Cody Tree and survived for many years. Eventually an aluminium replica was cast by apprentices of the Royal Aircraft Establishment which now marks the spot .[20]
  • A commemorative statue of Cody adjacent to the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum was unveiled by 94-year-old Captain Eric "Winkle" Brown in August 2013.[21][22]
  • Cody Technology Park, Farnborough was named his honour.
  • Cody Cricket Club based at Farnborough was named after him.
  • Cody lived for the last few years of his life in Ash Vale, Surrey, where his former house is marked by a blue plaque and is adjacent to a car dealership called Cody's which features an aeroplane on its sign.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Newnes Family Encyclopedia 1. London: George Newnes Ltd. p. 727. )
  2. ^ Taylor 1983 p. 28
  3. ^ Gibbs-Smith, Charles H. (23 May 1958). "S.F. Cody: An Historian’s Comments". Flight 73 (2574): 699. Retrieved 30 August 2013. 
  4. ^ For example, see Pawle, 1956, p36.
  5. ^ "First Flight was a Mistake!", article in Ancestors, October 2008, pp 18–19
  6. ^ a b c Who Do You Think You Are?, BBC Documentary, broadcast September 2013
  7. ^ Image collection of Cody's man-lifter kites
  8. ^ a b c d e f Walker, P.; "Early Aviation at Farnborough, Volume I: Balloons, Kites and Airships", Macdonald (1971).
  9. ^ Gibbs-Smith, Charles H. (3 Apr 1959). "Hops and Flights: A roll call of early powered take-offs". Flight 75 (2619): 470. Retrieved 24 Aug 2013. 
  10. ^ Walker, Vol. II (1974).
  11. ^ "Cody flies in front of Prince of Wales" Flight 22 May 1909
  12. ^ "Colonel Samuel Cody's historical flight to St Helens recreated". Liverpool Daily Post. Retrieved 2009-12-29. 
  13. ^ R.Ae.C. Silver Medals awarded in January 1912 Award of Medals Flight, 27 January 1912]
  14. ^ "Farnborough Air Sciences Trust — about the Trust and how to visit the museum". 
  15. ^ "Farnborough Air Sciences Trust — Cody flyer project". 
  16. ^ "Farnborough 2: Series 35 Episode 21 of 25". 28 April 2013. Retrieved 28 April 2013. 
  17. ^ Walker, Vol. II (1974), Pages 147-149
  18. ^ Walker, Vol. II (1974), Page 146: "Broomfield's original objective seems to have been to credit Cody with a flight antedating one that A. V. Roe was alleged to have made in June 1908, and so place him indisputably as the first man to fly in Britain."
  19. ^ Walker, Vol. II (1974), Chap. 6.
  20. ^ "Brabazon Flying Over Cody Tree". Retrieved 2 June 2014. 
  21. ^
  22. ^ [1]


  • Kuntz, Jerry A Pair of Shootists: The Wild West Story of S. F. Cody and Maud Lee. Norman. OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8061-4149-7
  • Lewis, P British Aircraft 1809–1914 London: Putnam, 1962.
  • Pawle, Gerald The Secret War 1939–45. London, Harrap, 1956.
  • Taylor, M.J.H. and Mondey, David Milestones of Flight. London: Jane's, 1983. ISBN 0-7106-0201-4
  • Walker, P.; "Early Aviation at Farnborough" (Two volumes), Macdonald (Volume I 1971, Volume II 1974).

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