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  • Britain’s First Glider: Charles Spencer February 7, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    spencer glider

    ***an important correction to this article from Nathaniel below***

    In 1868 the Aeronautical Society put up a stand at the Crystal Palace exhibition and prepared to show the nation their wares. There were many of the usual suspects: a miniature version of Stringfellow’s aerial steam carriage, for example, and prizes for anyone who get a steam engine to fly for more than five minutes at over ten feet of height. It was, one newspaper put it, a ‘striking exhibition of the folly and vanity human wishes and aspirations when allowed to run wild’. The aeronauts were frequently mocked, and few if any of the original members would live to be vindicated, but reading about their exploits from this distance sympathy and admiration is what comes most easily to the modern reader. This bring us to Mr Charles Spencer. He belonged to that mistaken branch of aeronautics that believed that human arms were capable of imitating the birds. In the sparse information about his experiments this comes through not least in his references to daily exercise and his athletic demeanour.

    At the meeting of the Aeronautical Society on Friday evening, 3rd inst. Mr. Spencer stated that experiments he has made with wings constructed on the principle of a boy’s dart he has flown 120 or 130 feet. He had made experiments at six o’clock that morning in the nave of the Crystal Palace where, when suspended rope, he was enabled by the use of the wings, raise himself sufficiently to slacken the rope. The fastenings of the wings were, however, imperfect, but in about a month he hopes to be able to fly though he would not even then make the attempt without a rope.

    From other sources we learn that the flight had taken place off a small rise near his home. It sounds very much as if Mr Charles Spencer was the UK’s first successful glider and perhaps his ‘craft’ allowed just enough flapping for him to be able to drfit through the air with the illusion that he was driving the process? As to what happened in the Crystal Palace, CS seems to have been beating his wings for the ‘rope to slacken’ or was that just the natural lift of the wings? The rope was presumably on a pulley, otherwise the flight would have been singularly ineffective: note that pulleys were used by Stringfellow in his flights with a miniature version of the aerial steam carriage. More information comes from this further spiteful article that gives you some sense of what these fliers had to put up with:

    we are told that [Charles Spencer’s] father was a friend of Mr Green, the aeronaut, and his godfather was Mr Green himself; so we venture to express a hope that Mr Spencer is married and has children, because we think that a son of his would be likely to be even more of a goose than he is. According to the official description of Mr Spencer’s invention, the weight of tbe body during flight is sustained by what are called aeroplanes, which are combined with two short wings moved by the arms. A speaker at the meeting said that ‘geese took up their legs and flew off’ and so would Mr. Spencer; but we are not informed that Mr. Spencer did. The same speaker recommended that such flying should be practised as gymnastics, without minding what the Press might say about it. We should certainly wonder that a man who did not mind the chance of breaking his limbs should fear the ridicule of a newspaper. But perhaps Mr. Spencer could not rise high enough to hurt himself in falling. The only experiment which he made in the presence of spectators was in the transept of the Crystal Palace, and then he was suspended by a long rope. The chairman of the meeting said, and everybody will say, that ‘we all look forward to Mr. Spencer’s flying with great interest.’ Mr. Spencer declared his intention to practise every morning, and as this was nearly a year ago, it may be hoped that by this time he is able to soar on other wings than those of his imagination. We do not indeed know that Mr. Spencer is not at this moment in the moon, but we do rather suspect that be resembles those persons who talk in a figurative sense of doing things ‘like a bird.’ For our own part, we agree with a speaker at tbe meeting, that the danger of breaking bones ‘appears a very serious objection to the practical utility of mechanical flying.

    A 1902 book offers the following information with far more respect at a date when manned flight was just a few seasons away and where those on the cutting edge knew it:

    At the first exhibition of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain at the Crystal Palace, in 1868, Mr Charles Spencer exhibited a contrivance which attracted considerable attention. The machine consisted of a pair of wings, measuring each 15 square feet in area, to which was attached an aeroplane, measuring no feet more, and also a tail like a boy’s dart and a longitudinal keelcloth to preserve the equilibrium, the whole weighing 24lbs., and giving a sustaining surface of 140 square feet. The inventor himself being an athlete, he was able at the trials to accomplish short horizontal flights of 120 to 130 feet by taking a preliminary run down a little hill. In these he was wholly sustained by the air. Spencer’s apparatus differed from the flying machine of his predecessors in possessing an aeroplane of about the relative area to the wings of the larger (174).

    A modern article in the Telegraph (by a descendant!) gives a little more information:

    His son Charles Green Spencer is also buried in Highgate, and set up the firm of CG Spencer and Son, which rapidly became a highly successful ballooning and parachuting business.

    The image at the top of the page comes from a Russian site and shows, allegedly, Spencer’s glider. If accurate the wings were each fifteen square feet! Anything else about Charles Spencer aeronaut? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com And any other opinions about how he flew, if he indeed did?

    7 Feb 2014: Nathaniel writes in ‘Almost certainly the honor of being the first glider (not only for the UK but the world) belongs to Sir George Cayley and various assistants.’ This title then needs to be changed to the Britain’s first gliding thinking he was flying.