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Was Samuel Franklin Cody Dyslexic?

Colonel Samuel Franklin Cody was a cowboy showman turned aviator who built and flew the British Army's first aeroplane. He was said to be illiterate, needing help for example when writing the diary demanded by his commanding officer. Documents written in his name come in a variety of handwriting styles. Critics of his aviation work often disparage him as an "illiterate cowboy". Several biographies in his defence have appeared over the years along with other studies of his aviation activities, yet nobody yet seems to have realised the simple explanation. I believe that Cody was dyslexic.

Let's look at some known facts. Cody was highly intelligent and creative, a genius perhaps, capable of mastering the arts of showmanship, play writing and production, and of developing, building and flying novel and highly effective designs for man-lifting kites and even aeroplanes at a time when nobody else in the country was able to. Despite his inability to do maths, he was the only person capable of designing and building the gondola for the British Army's first airship and of installing and maintaining its engine. He tried hard to learn to read and write, coached by members of his adopted family, yet he was never able to do more than write like a child, full of absurd spelling mistakes. And he designed his aeroplanes by eye, unable to perform the simplest of structural calculations. Yet, they flew - better than anybody else's in the country for several few years, with Cody being not only the first Army aviator but winning the Michelin Cup for two successive years and also a later Army Aeroplane Competition.

Consider today what happens to a schoolchild who is demonstrably highly intelligent and creative, studies hard and does outstandingly well in some subjects but lags badly behind in reading, writing and mathematics. These are classic symptoms of dyslexia and it is not long before the condition is diagnosed and, hopefully, remedial treatment begins.

But dyslexia was not understood in Cody's day, such failures were put down to stupidity or poor upbringing. It is time we stopped assuming that ignorant old diagnosis to be correct and looked at Cody with a fresh eye. With the benefit of modern knowledge, I would suggest that we can confidently diagnose Samuel Franklin Cody as suffering from severe dyslexia.

Modern biographies of Cody may be found in:

The classic study of his aviation work appears in two volumes:

Updated 27 Oct 2014