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How a Wild West Showman Brought Man-Lifting Kites to the British Army

Around the turn of the 20th century, people were nuts about new technology, even stuff that now seems so odd you have to wonder what they were thinking. Take kites: if you had enough of them, one could lift a man high in the sky, as if he were flying. It was fun! But could it be used for military purposes? Armies used weather balloons for surveillance. Surely a man-lifting kite would be better… at least that was the view of one Samuel Franklin Cody, who modeled his Wild West Show career after Buffalo Bill Cody. Kite designer Scott Skinner, who researches the history of kites, tells us about Cody.  

“While touring Great Britain he became enamored with kites,” says Skinner. Kite enthusiasm in Europe was flourishing; serious hobbyists and scientists alike read kiting magazines and gathered at annual fetes. Cody built and flew them, and finally decided to throw his effort into designing a man-lifting kite that could be turned into dollar signs and prestige.

By 1901, Cody had patented a version of a man-lifting kite, and according to biographer Garry Jenkins, was flexing his entrepreneurial muscles. “By then he has already written to the war office, offering them first option on ‘SF Cody’s Aroplaine [sic] or War-Kite: A boy’s toy turned into an instrument of war,’” he wrote in Colonel Cody and the Flying Cathedral.

The military use of man-lifting kites soon faded with the rise of the airplane, which even Cody preferred. Besides, we eventually figured out how to use airborne cameras without a photographer. Read about the fascinating Samuel Franklin Cody and his kite scheme at Atlas Obscura.

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