British boat-maker Christopher Cockerell from Lowestoft was experimenting on the muddy floor of his boatyard when he came up with the conceptual design of the hovercraft – using an empty can of cat food, a coffee tin, a pair of kitchen scales and a vacuum cleaner set to “blow”.
He was testing the theory that reducing the amount of friction caused when a boat travels through the water could allow it to travel faster – but his research led to the creation of a completely revolutionary form of transport that could operate on both land and water.
The idea of the (yet to be named) hovercraft had been around for some time during Cockerell’s experimentation in the 1950s, but he was the first person to devise an effective way of trapping the crucial cushion of air needed to glide, making it a viable mode of transport.
Dubbed “Britain’s flying saucer”, it was a cross between an aircraft, a boat and a land vehicle. The hybrid vessel is able to hover just above the waves at sea and avoid any irregular surfaces on land.
However, the hovercraft’s journey to success was not all smooth sailing. In 1955 Cockerell convinced the Ministry of Supply to back him in its progression, but he was unable to commercially develop the product immediately because his idea had been placed on the government’s secret list due to its potential benefits to the military.
Eventually, in 1959, Cockerell managed to get his idea removed from the secret list (when the military didn’t express interest) and he formed the Hovercraft Development Company Ltd., having gathered £150,000 of funding from the National Research Development Council to develop his ground-breaking design.
Saunders Roe, a boat firm at Cowes, was then given a contract to build the first ever, fully-functional hovercraft. They built the SRN-1 – a 29 ft long, 24 ft wide, 6,600 lb model on which the First public hovercraft flight took place.
The maiden voyage by a full-sized hovercraft took place off Cowes, Isle of Wight, UK, on 11 June 1959. The craft reached a speed of 68 knots (126 km/h; 78 mph). It weighed 4-tonnes (8,800 lb) and had a 680 kg (1500 lb) thrust Viper turbojet engine.
The hovercraft went on to be used for all sorts of travel, including journeys across the English Channel. The first Channel crossing took place in July 1959 and was a huge triumph for the hovercraft. However, Channel crossings on hovercrafts eventually ended due to competition from large ferries and the Channel Tunnel.
As well as providing effective transport for the consumer public, the hovercraft led to developments for military vehicles and began to be used for search and rescue all over the world, proving infinitely valuable. They are still used in a vast variety of situations, by coast guards, yacht owners, on golf courses, and even for racing or thrill rides.
Sir Christopher Cockerell was knighted for his incredible contributions to British engineering in 1969, and passed away in 1999 aged 89.