CHAPTER XXII. THE STORY OF THE SPENCERS.
It has been in the hands of the Spencers that the parachute, as also many other practical details of aeronautics, has been perfected, and some due sketch of the career of this family of eminent aeronauts must be no longer delayed.
Charles Green had stood godfather to the youngest son of his friend and colleague, Mr. Edward Spencer, and in later years, as though to vindicate the fact, this same son took up the science of aeronautics at the point where his father had left it. We find his name in the records of the Patent Office of 1868 as the inventor of a manumetric flying machine, and there are accounts of the flying leaps of several hundred feet which he was enabled to take by means of the machine he constructed. Again, in 1882 we find him an inventor, this time of the patent asbestos fire balloon, by means of which the principal danger to such balloons was overcome.
At this point it is needful to make mention of the third generation - the several sons who early showed their zeal and aptitude for perpetuating the family tradition. It was from his school playground that the eldest son, Percival, witnessed with intense interest what appeared like a drop floating in the sky at an immense altitude. This proved to be Simmons's balloon, which had just risen to a vast elevation over Cremorne Gardens, after having liberated the unfortunate De Groof, as mentioned in a former chapter. And one may be sure that the terrible reality of the disaster that had happened was not lost on the young schoolboy. But his wish was to become an aeronauts, and from this desire nothing deterred him, so that school days were scarcely over before he began to accompany his father aloft, and in a very few years, i.e. in 1888, he had assumed the full responsibilities of a professional balloonist.
It was in this year that Professor Baldwin appeared in England, and it is easy to understand that the parachute became an object of interest to the young Spencer, who commenced on his own account a series of trials at the Alexandra Palace, and it was now, also, that chance good fortune came his way. An Indian gentleman, who was witness of his experiments, and convinced that a favourable field for their further development existed in his own country, proposed to the young aspirant that he should accompany him to India, with equipment suited for the making of a successful campaign.
Thus it came about that in the early days of 1889, in the height of the season, Mr. Percival Spencer arrived at Bombay, and at once commenced professional business in earnest. Coal gas being here available, a maiden ascent was quickly arranged, and duly announced to take place at the Government House, Paral, the chief attraction being the parachute descent, the first ever attempted in India.
This preliminary exhibition proving in all ways a complete success, Mr. Spencer, after a few repetitions of his performance, repaired to Calcutta; but here great difficulties were experienced in the matter of gas. The coal gas available was inadequate, and when recourse was had to pure hydrogen the supply proved too sluggish. At the advertised hour of departure the balloon was not sufficiently inflated, while the spectators were growing impatient. It was at this critical moment that Mr. Spencer resolved on a surprise. Suddenly casting off the parachute, and seated on a mere sling below the half-inflated balloon, without ballast, without grapnel, and unprovided with a valve, he sailed away over the heads of the multitude.
The afternoon was already far advanced, and the short tropical twilight soon gave way to darkness, when the intrepid voyager disappeared completely from sight. Excitement was intense that night in Calcutta, and greater still the next day when, as hour after hour went by, no news save a series of wild and false reports reached the city. Trains arriving from the country brought no intelligence, and telegraphic enquiries sent in all directions proved fruitless. The Great Eastern Hotel, where the young man had been staying, was literally besieged for hours by a large crowd eager for any tidings. Then the Press gave expression to the gloomiest forebodings, and the town was in a fever of unrest. From the direction the balloon had taken it was thought that, even if the aeronaut had descended in safety, he could only have been landed in the jungle of the Sunderbunds, beset with perils, and without a chance of succour. A large reward was offered for reliable information, and orders were issued to every likely station to organise a search. But ere this was fully carried into effect messages were telegraphed to England definitely asserting that Mr. Spencer had lost his life. For all this, after three days he returned to Calcutta, none the worse for the exploit.
Then the true tale was unravelled. The balloon had changed its course from S.E. to E. after passing out of sight of Calcutta, and eventually came to earth the same evening in the neighbourhood of Hossainabad, thirty-six miles distant. During his aerial flight the voyager's main trouble had been caused by his cramped position, the galling of his sling seat, and the numbing effect of cold as he reached high altitudes; but, as twilight darkened into gloom, his real anxiety was with respect to his place of landing, for he could with difficulty see the earth underneath. He heard the distant roll of the waters, caused by the numerous creeks which intersect the delta of the Ganges, and when darkness completely shut out the view it was impossible to tell whether he was over land or sea. Fortune favoured him, however, and reaching dry ground, he sprang from his seat, relinquishing at the same moment his hold of the balloon, which instantly disappeared into the darkness.