The Balloon Factory, by Alexander Frater

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The Independent Culture

"Colonel" Cody was one of those magnificent men in their flying machines, and competed gloriously in the race that inspired the film of that name. Samuel Cody was a former American showman whose new frontier was the air. In his showbiz days, he put it about that he was "Buffalo Bill" Cody's son. The two did meet but his claim, like much in his early life, was a fib.

Sam has a much better claim to being the first man in Britain (he was naturalised here) to fly in a powered heavier-than-air machine (another aviator may have achieved a slightly earlier lift-off). It was one of his creations, a "hydrobiplane", that came to pieces in mid-air and flung the prang-prone pilot to his death in August 1913: 100,000 mourners lined Cody's route to the cemetery.

Sam Cody is the most spectacular of the higher-than-life pioneers of British aviation with which Alexander Frater has filled his intriguing and delightfully crafted The Balloon Factory. Another of Britain's answers to the Wright brothers was J W Dunne, better known for his prophetic dreams that led to his theory of past, present and future being simultaneous. His protégé, Richard Fairey, was employed purely on the strength of a model he happened to have made of one of Dunne's real planes. Later, Fairey set up on his own at a site now known as Heathrow.

Hiram Maxim invented a revolutionary mousetrap in his teens, and later a machine-gun, the earnings from which funded his aeronautical adventures. (And marital escapades: he was a trigamist.)

The launch pad for aerial developments was the government's Balloon Factory in Farnborough: the future was initially thought to lie in airships rather than aeroplanes. Frater made a pilgrimage there, and to other places sacred to our first aeronauts. The earliest was Eilmer of Malmesbury, a Benedictine monk who, 1,000 years ago, strapped on a pair of wings, leapt from the top of a church and flew, or plummeted, for more than 200 yards.

Since the poor priest never walked again without crutches, it was prudent of Victorian inventor Sir George Cayley to delegate the actual flights in his glider, in 1849, to the young son of an estate worker, and four years later to his coachman. On this second flight, the unwilling birdman crash-landed. Complaining that he "was hired to drive, not to fly", he promptly resigned. All in all, not what you might call the right – or, indeed, the Wright – stuff.