Gallery D
Sam Cody
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Aerial Inventor and Daredevil Sam Cody

By James Donahue

Born in Davenport, Iowa in 1867, Samuel Franklin Cowdery claimed to have lived the life of a cowboy as a young man. He not only learned how to ride, train horses, shoot and use a lasso, he participated in the famous Klondike Gold Rush at Dawson City. At the age of 21 he joined the Forepauch Circus which included a Wild West show. It was at about this time Cowdery changed his last name to Cody, claiming that he was somehow related to the famed showman Buffalo Bill Cody.

The next year, in 1889, Cody met and married Maud Maria Lee, who joined him in the early portion of his strange life of adventures that tossed him among the early pioneers of manned flight. He signed his marriage certificate with the name Cody, although there probably is no record of a legal name change. He just did it.

Cody and his wife, who appeared as Lillian Cody, then toured England with a shooting act. But Maud was severely injured in some kind of accident, became addicted to morphine, and then suffered from an onset of schizophrenia, and was unable to perform. It was at this time that Cody took up with Elizabeth Mary King who began performing with Cody under the name Lela Marie Cody. They also lived together as husband and wife, although he never bothered divorcing Maud.

Sometime during his early years . . . he told how a Chinaman taught him how to build kites during his years on the prairie . . .Cody developed a fascination for flight. Not just kite flying, but he dared to dream of building kites large enough and strong enough to lift a man on a windy day.

It was while performing at Alexandra Palace in London that Cody met French balloonist Auguste Gaudron. Gaudron joined Cody in his quest to design and build kites capable of reaching high altitudes and carrying men with them. Working on the design of kites at about the same time was Lawrence Hargrave, who designed a double-cell box kite that lifted him sixteen feet off the ground.
Cody improved the Hargrave design, adding wings, and then when used with multiple kites together in a line, his invention, later patentened as the Cody Kite, actually carried a gondola carrying several men thousands of feet into the air.
The military was developing baloons for military and meteorological observations but they could only be used on days when the wind didn't blow. Cody's kites used wind to make them operate. They were eventually accepted for use by meteorogogists. He also offered a version of this kite to the British War Office that was used for observations during the Second Boer War.

Always trying new stunts, Cody once crossed the English Channel in a collapsible canvas raft towed by one of his special kites. In 1905, at about the time the Wright Brothers were having success with their first flying aircraft in the United States, Cody went the next step from his box kite with wings and designed a glider that he flew successfully.

The glider was designed like a tailless biplane. He thought of it as a manned "glider-kite." It was launched on a tether like a kite and then once airborne, was released for glider flight. What was notable was that the glider was the first flying aircraft that used ailerons to control roll.

The British Army became interested in using Cody's kites as part of their balloon observation program. They gave him the title of Chief Instructor of Kiting and put him in charge of a section of the Royal Engineers. 

It was in 1907 that Cody began experimenting with engine-powered aircraft. He first designed an unmanned "power kite" with larger wings and a tailplane with twin fins. It was fitted with a 15 horse-powered Bucket engine. Since it was unmanned he flew it attached to a long wire from the ground.

Also that year Cody was involved in designing and building the British Army's first powered dirigible, called Nulli Secundus. He and Colonel J. E. Capper flew it successfully from Aldershot to London in just under four hours.

The following year Cody designed and built the British Army's Aeroplane No. 1. It had a wingspan of over 52 feet. In September 1908 he flew it for 1,390 feet, but damaged it on landing. He repaired the craft and few it several times more before the army decided to abandon the idea of heavier than air flying machines.

Strangely enough, the army gave Cody the aircraft, which he continued to work on and fly. He later flew it for over a mile. He made more modifications and began carrying passengers.
Cody attempted to be the first to fly non-stop from Liverpool to Manchester but was forced to land because of fog. In 1910 he won the Michelin Cup for the longest flight in England. He remained in the air 4 hours and 47 minutes.

In 1911 Cody flew the only British aircraft in the Daily Mail's "Circuit of Britain" air race. He received the Royal Air Corps' Silver Medal. His V aeroplane won the 5,000 pound prize at the 1912 British Military Aeroplane Competition, the first of its kind.

By 1913 Cody was test flying a new floatplane, an aircraft he designed with floats that would allow it to land on water. This was his last aircraft. He was at 500 feet when the aircraft experienced structural failure. Cody and a passenger were both thrown to the ground and killed.

Cody was buried with full military honors in Aldershot Military Cemetery. They said a crowd of an estimated 100,000 attended.