I FIRST HEARD of Sam Cody and his aeroplanes as a small boy and, after seeing a photograph of the man, I naturally assumed that he and Buffalo Bill Cody of Wild West Show fame were one and the same person.
I FIRST HEARD of Sam Cody and his aeroplanes as a small boy and, after seeing a photograph of the man, I naturally assumed that he and Buffalo Bill Cody of Wild West Show fame were one and the same person. It seems, according to this excellent biography, that Sam Cody himself did little to discourage assumptions of a close relationship. Samuel Franklin Cody’s real name was Franklin Samuel Cowdery. He was a direct descendant of one of the original founding fathers of 1630, but it suited his theatrical career to claim a relationship with Buffalo Bill.
Cody was quite unable to resist the temptation to embroider his early life in America which, Garry Jenkins reveals, was extraordinary enough anyway. He had been a cowboy and a horse breaker as a youth then moved on to a wild west show as a trick shot and stunt rider. He travelled to England and started his own wild west show, with his wife and family. After legal problems concerning his use of Buffalo Bill’s surname he took the show to France in 1892. Here, as well as producing and performing, he set up a series of races between himself on horseback and a number of professional racing cyclists. Cycle racing was then a new and popular sport in France and drew large crowds. Cody, a superb horseman, won the majority of these races and, as he placed large bets on himself, made substantial profits.
There are some good reproductions of old photographs and posters of this part of Cody’s life and indeed the whole book is nicely illustrated and stylishly laid out. I particularly enjoyed the small illustrations in the margins that surround the page numbers and relate to the various periods in Cody’s life.
Taking his show back to England after touring Europe, Cody gradually drifted into true theatre, producing a great theatrical success entitled The Klondyke Nugget in 1898. His family and company toured the country with this melodrama. As a relaxation from the theatre Cody took up kite building and eventually produced very successful man carrying kites. He then patented these remarkable machines and offered them to the war office in 1901. The army recognised his unique expertise and employed him as chief kite instructor to the balloon section!
The Wright brothers’ remarkable achievement in 1903 galvanised the rest of the world into research on powered flight, and in England, Cody, amongst others, set to work on the problem. The account of the vacillations and obstructive behaviour of the then ‘powers that be’ will ring a familiar bell with anyone involved in aviation today. The machines he ultimately produced were reliable, controllable and strong. Today, it would not be easy to duplicate his performance in the Circuit of Britain Air Race of 1911 even in a modern light aircraft. The fortitude and endurance he displayed in the wretched weather that prevailed in the north, completely exposed to the elements with no cockpit or windscreen, was amazing.
If you want to know the rest of this astonishing man’s story, his triumphs and frustrations together with its tragic end in 1913, I strongly recommend this authoritative and well written book, which paints a sympathetic portrait and does justice to a neglected pioneer. Philip Whiteman.