CHAPTER VII. Some British Inventors of Air-ships

The first Englishman to invent an air-ship was Mr. Stanley Spencer, head of the well-known firm of Spencer Brothers, whose worksare at Highbury, North London.

This firm has long held an honourable place in aeronautics, both in the construction of air-craft and in aerial navigation. Spencer Brothers claim to be the premier balloon manufacturers in the world, and, at the time of writing, eighteen balloons and two dirigibles lie in the works ready for use. In these works there may also be seen the frame of the famous Santos-Dumont air-ship, referred to later in this book.

In general appearance the first Spencer air-ship was very similar to the airship flown by Santos-Dumont; that is, there was the cigar-shaped balloon, the small engine, and the screw propellor for driving the craft forward.

But there was one very important distinction between the two air-ships. By a most ingenious contrivance the envelope was made so that, in the event of a large and serious escape of gas, the balloon would assume the form of a giant umbrella, and fall to earth after the manner of a parachute.

All inventors profit, or should profit, by the experience of others, whether such experience be gained by success or failure. It was found that Santos-Dumont's air-ship lost a considerable amount of gas when driven through the air, and on several occasions the whole craft was in great danger of collapse. To keep the envelope inflated as tightly as possible Mr. Spencer, by a clever contrivance, made it possible to force air into the balloon to replace the escaped gas.

The first Spencer air-ship was built for experimental purposes. It was able to lift only one person of light weight, and was thus a great contrast to the modern dirigible which carries a crew of thirty or forty people. Mr. Spencer made several exhibition flights in his little craft at the Crystal Palace, and so successful were they that he determined to construct a much larger craft.

The second Spencer air-ship, first launched in 1903, was nearly 100 feet long. There was one very important distinction between this and other air-ships built at that time: the propeller was placed in front of the craft, instead of at the rear, as is the case in most air-ships. Thus the craft was pulled through the air much after the manner of an aeroplane.

In the autumn of 1903 great enthusiasm was aroused in London by the announcement that Mr. Spencer proposed to fly from the Crystal Palace round the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral and back to his starting-place. This was a much longer journey than that made by Santos-Dumont when he won the Deutsch prize.

Tens of thousands of London's citizens turned out to witness the novel sight of a giant air-ship hovering over the heart of their city, and it was at once seen what enormous possibilities there were in the employment of such craft in time of war. The writer remembers well moving among the dense crowds and hearing everywhere such remarks as these:

"What would happen if a few bombs were thrown over the side of the air-ship?" "Will there be air-fleets in future, manned by the soldiers or sailors?" Indeed the uppermost thought in people's minds was not so much the possibility of Mr. Spencer being able to complete his journey successfully - nearly everyone recognized that air-ship construction had now advanced so far that it was only a matter of time for an ideal craft to be built - but that the coming of the air-ship was an affair of grave international importance.

The great craft, glistening in the sunlight, sailed majestically from the south, but when it reached the Cathedral it refused to turn round and face the wind. Try how he might, Mr. Spencer could not make any progress. It was a thrilling sight to witness this battle with the elements, right over the heart of the largest city in the world. At times the air-ship seemed to be standing quite still, head to wind. Unfortunately, half a gale had sprung up, and the 24-horse-power engine was quite incapable of conquering so stiff a breeze, and making its way home again. After several gallant attempts to circle round the dome, Mr. Spencer gave up in despair, and let the monster air-ship drift with the wind over the northern suburbs of the city until a favourable landing-place near Barnet was reached, where he descended.

The Spencer air-ships are of the non-rigid type. Spencer air-ship A comprises a gas vessel for hydrogen 88 feet long and 24 feet in diameter, with a capacity of 26,000 cubic feet. The framework is of polished ash wood, made in sections so that it can easily be taken to pieces and transported, and the length over all is 56 feet. Two propellers 7 feet 6 inches diameter, made of satin-wood, are employed to drive the craft, which is equipped with a Green engine of from 35 to 40 horse-power.

Spencer's air-ship B is a much larger vessel, being 150 feet long and 35 feet in diameter, with a capacity for hydrogen of 100,000 cubic feet. The framework is of steel and aluminium, made in sections, with cars for ten persons, including aeronauts, mechanics, and passengers. It is driven with two petrol aerial engines of from 50 to 60 horse-power.

About the time that Mr. Spencer was experimenting with his large air-ship, Dr. Barton, of Beckenham, was forming plans for an even larger craft. This he laid down in the spacious grounds of the Alexandra Park, to the north of London. An enormous shed was erected on the northern slopes of the park, but visitors to the Alexandra Palace, intent on a peep at the monster air-ship under construction, were sorely disappointed, as the utmost secrecy in the building of the craft was maintained.

The huge balloon was 43 feet in diameter and 176 feet long, with a gas capacity of 235,000 cubic feet. To maintain the external form of the envelope a smaller balloon, or compensator, was placed inside the larger one. The framework was of bamboo, and the car was attached by about eighty wire-cables. The wooden deck was about 123 feet in length. Two 50-horse-power engines drove four propellers, two of which were at either end.

The inventor employed a most ingenious contrivance to preserve the horizontal balance of the air-ship. Fitted, one at each end of the carriage, were two 50-gallon tanks. These tanks were connected with a long pipe, in the centre of which was a hand-pump. When the bow of the air-ship dipped, the man at the pump could transfer some of the water from the fore-tank to the after-tank, and the ship would right itself. The water could similarly be transferred from the after-tank to the fore-tank when the stern of the craft pointed downwards.

There were many reports, in the early months of 1905, that the air-ship was going to be brought out from the shed for its trial flights, and the writer, in common with many other residents in the vicinity of the park, made dozens of journeys to the shed in the expectation of seeing the mighty dirigible sail away. But for months we were doomed to disappointment; something always seemed to go wrong at the last minute, and the flight had to be postponed.

At last, in 1905, the first ascent took place. It was unsuccessful. The huge balloon, made of tussore silk, cruised about for some time, then drifted away with the breeze, and came to grief in landing.

A clever inventor of air-ships, a young Welshman, Mr. E. T. Willows, designed in 1910, an air-ship in which he flew from Cardiff to London in the dark - a distance of 139 miles. In the same craft he crossed the English Channel a little later.

Mr. Willows has a large shed in the London aerodrome at Hendon, and he is at present working there on a new air-ship. For some time he has been the only successful private builder of air-ships in Great Britain. The Navy possess a small Willows air-ship.

Messrs. Vickers, the famous builders of battleships, are giving attention to the construction of air-ships for the Navy, in their works at Walney Island, Barrow-in-Furness. This firm has erected an enormous shed, 540 feet long, 150 feet broad, and 98 feet high. In this shed two of the largest air-ships can be built side by side. Close at hand is an extensive factory for the production of hydrogen gas.

At each end of the roof are towers from which the difficult task of safely removing an air-ship from the shed can be directed.

At the time of writing, the redoubtable DORA (Defence of the Realm Act) forbids any but the vaguest references to what is going forward in the way of additions to our air forces. But it may be stated that air-ships are included in the great constructive programme now being carried out. It is not long since the citizens of Glasgow were treated to the spectacle of a full-sized British "Zep" circling round the city prior to her journey south, and so to regions unspecified. And use, too, is being found by the naval arm for that curious hybrid the "Blimp", which may be described as a cross between an aeroplane and an air-ship.