Samuel Cody (Photo: FAST Collection)
The real Samuel Cody
By Joe Campbell
A hundred years ago, an American cowboy made history in the fields of north Hampshire - taking off for the first powered flight in the UK. Samuel Cody's short first flight was just one landmark in a remarkable life.
Samuel Franklin Cody was a born showman - but separating fact from the fiction he created as part of his act around the theatres of Britain has taxed his biographers for years.
When he arrived in Europe in 1890 he claimed to be the son of Buffalo Bill Cody who had already popularised wild west shows playing on the public's fascination with the American West.
In fact the two were unrelated and the real Colonel Cody later sued in the courts to stop him repeating the claim. Far from being a relative, the man whose Aldershot grave bears the name Cody was actually born Cowdery, not in Indian country in Texas as he claimed, but the rather less romantic town of Davenport in Iowa.
Another claim that most of his family had been wiped out by marauding Indians was also part of the stage persona he adopted for a series of music hall shows involving tricks such as shooting items out of the lips of his newly acquired partner Leila.
Soon her children were roped into the ever more grandiose performances which reached a high point with a play penned by Cody called the Klondyke Nugget. Set against the background of the gold rush, it boasted a wealth of stage effects including a bridge blowing up and horse plunging into the ravine below.
Cody himself played the villain of the piece and posters show him getting his just deserts, suffering a drawn out and melodramatic death.
A series of less successful plays followed, but by this time Cody had a new fascination - kites.
Part of a Cody kite today
At first he had used them as part of his promotion for the touring Cody family. The dramatic looking structures would be taken to open ground in the town where they were appearing. Once launched skyward, the spectacle would soon attract a crowd who having gathered would then be presented with flyers detailing the performances at the theatre where the Codys were performing that week.
Once again his touch for the theatrical was in evidence and when asked about what had sparked his interest, Cody claimed to have been introduced to kite flying by a Chinese cook while working on the cattle drives across the old west.
Wherever the truth lay, soon he had developed a kite capable of lifting a man a thousand feet into the air.
But if he were to continue with such experiments he needed a backer. And for that he turned to the military.
Writing to the War Office from the Star Theatre in Wolverhampton in 1901 he used the same language in his appeal for funds that he might have employed to drum up a sell out crowd for his stage show.
"I believe I possess certain secrets which would be of use to the government in the way of kite flying," he claimed and offered to demonstrate his skills to the military at any one of his upcoming dates, including a week at the Arsenal Theatre, Woolwich.
At the time Cody's man lifting kites offered an alternative to balloons which could haul lookouts aloft to spot targets for both the Royal Navy and Army's guns. At HMS Excellent on Whale Island in Portsmouth he carried out successful trials but the navy lost interest when he asked for too much money.
However the army interest continued and he was invited to work at their balloon factory at Aldershot.
Britain's Generals though were pinning their aviation hopes on airships. In 1907 Britain's first airship - Nulli Secundus - made its first and only flight from Farnborough to central London with Cody at the helm. After circling St Paul's Cathedral it was forced down by high winds and landed at Alexandra Palace.
Cody still wanted to develop a 'heavier than air' flying machine, building on the achievement of the Wright Brothers' first powered flight in 1903.
On 16 October 1908 Cody's British Army Aircraft Number One - known as the 'Cody Flyer' took off on Farnborough Common.
It made it to a height of 16-20 feet above the ground, flew over a clump of trees before crash landing after being hit by a gust of wind. He had been in the air for just 30 seconds but it is credited as being the first powered, controlled flight ever in the UK.
The Cody Flyer after the first flight
However the development of Cody's dream proved just as bumpy. The military authorities were far from convinced about investing in these new flying machines which were prone to crashing.
Cody's funding was withdrawn and he was forced to continue his trials and plane building with his own funds.
While other younger air pioneers - Charles Rolls, Thomas Sopwith and Geoffrey de Havilland - had more commercial operations, Kody worked in his shed on Laffan's Plain near Farnborough with a team of volunteers and helpers.
last updated: 20/10/2008 at 15:59