History Behind The Card: First British War Balloon, ‘Nulli Secundus’, 1905
Card #9 of 50, W.D. & H.O. Wills, Aviation series 1910
- Samuel Cody nee Samuel Franklin Cowdery, March 6, 1867 in Davenport, Iowa, United States of America – August 7, 1913 in Farnborough, Great Britain;
- Sir John Edward Capper, December 7, 1861 in Lucknow, British India – May 24, 1955 in Eastbourne, East Sussex, Great Britain.
This Wills’s card is all about the first British war balloon, the ‘Dirigible No. 1’ aka ‘Nulli Secundus’ (Latin for ‘Second-to-None’).
As an aside, there was initially little information on the actual Nulli Secundis, and so I had only written a few paragraphs… but there is ALWAYS more information somewhere. It’s taken me a week to comb through and a couple of days to write it up – hence the delay in postings. It’s not an excuse, however.
The American, Cody, designed it with the help of British Colonel (later Major-General) Sir John Edward Capper KCB (Knight Commander) KCVO (Knight Commander Royal of the Victorian Order), a senior officer of the British Army.
Capper was involved in Britain’s pioneer development of airships, but was probably more famous for helping establish and command several military training establishments in Britain, and for his establishment of the tank as a key military weapon for the British Army.
Capper was also in charge of developing the Nulli Secundis and did so in 1905… and though it was merely considered to be an experiment, the dirigible was not flown in public at that time.
However, after becoming superintendent of The British Army Balloon Factory in 1906, he piloted the balloon over London 1907.
Okay… but what of Cody?
Cody is an interesting man… Born as Samuel Franklin Cowdery, was, above all else, a showman. He says he took the name Cody when he was a boy, but all it did in later years is confuse him with the illustrious showman Buffalo Bill Cody, who had achieved that nickname about a year after Cody was born… so at least you know who came first – Buffalo Bill.
But… when it came to aviation, Cody was more than just a showman – he was the real deal pioneer of aviation.
Cody himself, says he first became interested in kites after a Chinese cook who was traveling the dusty trails of the Old American West taught him a bit about Chinese culture. Now… while that may have been more for show – to lend mystique to the accomplishment, as the Chinese, despite the comical stereotype people incorrectly had, were largely unknown. They had an air of mystery about them.
Cody may actually have become interested in kites, when, as a circus performer and owner, he met up with balloonist Auguste Gaudron (1868-1913), a British balloonist in Paris until 1890, and a balloon maker for Spencer & Sons in London from 1890-1913.
Gaudron was also considered a showman, as he had a business team made up of both men AND women. The use of women was scandalous, at best, but you can bet the men came out to see the women.
Cody took an interest in building his own man-lifting kites, which were joined one after the other, forming a single line of kites in the sky.
He patented a design in 1901, a winged version of a double cell box kite and offered it to the British War Office for use against the Boers in 1901 as a spotting observation device. They gladly accepted after he made several trips in one up to about 2,000 feet around London, England.
He kept designing balloons and even used one to tow a boat he was in across the English Channel in and around 1904.
In 1905 he turned his hand to building a glider and made a number of flights on his design based on his box kits until he crashed and destroyed it. But… he never repaired it because now the British Army was more interested in his kites, and hired him in 1906 as chief instructor in Kiting at the Aldershot Ballooning School (about 60 kilometers southwest of London).
Cody, in his new position formed kite units within the Royal Engineers, which later evolved into the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers, of which the No.1 Company later became the No.1 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. and eventually the No. 1 Squadron Royal Air Force.
Yes, United Kingdom, for your wonderful air force, you owe a lot of thanks to an American who stole his surname from a cowboy and entertainer, as perhaps, as well, to a Chinese cook. Owtch.
During this period Cody also built a motorized kite that he wanted to develop into a man-carrying airplane. But because the British Army was more interested in his kites and balloons, they asked him to concentrate more on the lighter-than-air airships.
During 1907, he was part of the team at Aldershot (along with Capper) that designed and constructed the Nulli Secundis, England’s first powered airship.
Although it is true that the early design work on the dirigible was conducted by Colonel James Templer, Capper and Cody completed it, with Cody actually being the one who developed the steering gear and the engine, a 50-horsepower (37 kilowatt) Antoinette powerplant (Incorporated in 1906, Antoinette was a French manufacturer of light aircraft gasoline-powered engines. The engines were used by such famous airmen as Santos-Dumont and his 14-Bis plane, and in Farman’s Voisin bi-plane).
The dirigible itself is small, by conventional standards at 34.14 meters (112-feet) in length containing a hydrogen gas volume of 2,407-cubic meters (85,000-cubic feet).
Now, that you have the background, let’s look at what the Wills’s card is showing us: the flight of the Nulli Secundis.
Being sure, Cody and Clapper arranged for a non-public maiden flight of the Nulli Secundis on September 10, 1907. While I can find no detail on that flight, we do know that nearly a month later it made its first public appearance on October 5, 1907.
On that date, the Nulli Secundis began its flight at 11PM and flew from Aldershot to London on an 80.47 kilometer (50-mile) journey taking three hours and 25-minutes.
Because this dirigible had steering, they maneuvered it around St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and then tried to fly it back to Aldershot.
Unfortunately, the 18 miles per hour (~29 kilometers per hour) headwinds forced the Nulli Secundis to land on the grounds of Crystal Palace in Sydenham.
Now, you might think our story of this historic British aircraft would end here, but then why would I still be writing?
On October 10, 1907, just five days later, the Nulli Secundis is still moored on the grounds of Crystal Palace.
Unfortunately, high winds kicked up, buffeting the dirigible badly enough to tear free some of the guy ropes holding it down.
To keep it anchored, workers released the hydrogen gas in the balloon through escape valves, and in order to stop total carnage, a decision was made to place a large slit in the fabric to sped up the process.
Later, the deflated and now partially dismantled Nulli Secundis was taken back by road to Farnborough (Aldershot) where parts were used in the construction of the Nulli Secundis II.
History be damned, eh? The damn parts are expensive.
As for the Nulli Secundis II, it was not a successful dirigible, and after a few flights it was dismantled in 1908 and never flew again.
Despite the set-back, Cody wasn’t too discouraged, as later in 1908 the British Army decided the aeroplane was a viable alternative, after all. Of course, 1908 was when the Wright Brothers went public with their achievements from 1903… Ohhh Britannia… The British Army wanted an aeroplane – one that would eventually become Cody’s work to create British Army Aeroplane No. 1 (at least you know where you stand with British aviation names).
(Ed. Note: The British Army Aeroplane No.1 is actually Wills’s Aviation Card #44) (Yes, I am updating these blogs!)
The aeroplane was first tested in September of 1908, and his flight on October 5, 1908 is recognized as the first piloted heavier-than air flight in Great Britain.
He continued to lengthen his aeroplane’s hops, eventually achieving a distance of 420 meters (1,390 feet) on October 16, 1908. Unfortunately, the aeroplane was badly damaged during that flight and subsequent landing, and while it was eventually fixed to fly again in early 1909, the British War Office decided it couldn’t see the value in heavier-than-air aircraft and decided to stop funding to Cody, ending his contract in April of 1909.
At least they gave Cody the aircraft.
I will go into greater detail about Cody’s aeroplanes later, but, just know that Cody continued to build airplanes using his own money.
On August 7, 1913, Cody was test piloting his Cody Floatplane when it broke up at a height of 500 feet, killing himself and passenger (cricket player) William Evans.
Buried with full military honors at Aldershot Military Cemetary, 100,000 people came out to see his funeral procession.
It must have been quite a show.