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You are here -> HOME - RETROVILLE - 1956 - In The News -Hovercraft
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Welcome to Retroville! It's 1956!
The Hovercraft, the brainchild of Sir Christopher Cockerell, was patented as a finished design in 1956, but it was very nearly not built at all.

Christopher Sydney Cockerell was born in 1910. He was educated in normal fashion and showed no particular genius during his formative years. He went to work for the Radio Research Company in 1930 and remained there until 1935. He left that position and went to work for Marconi Wireless Telegraph where he remained until 1951.

During the war years, Cockerell worked at Marconi to develop radar, a project that Winston Churchill believed would have a significant effect on the outcome of WWII. Cockerell would ultimately receive 36 patents for various ideas.

In 1969, the British Crown knighted Christopher Cockerell in recognition of his vast achievements.

But, back to the Hovercraft. The history of this unique form of travel begins in the 1700's...

  • 1716 - Swedish inventor Emmanuel Swendenbourg recorded a design for an air-cushioned vehicle. Resembling an upturned dinghy with a cockpit at the center, the design required oar-like air scoops to force compressed air beneath the hull to raise the craft above the surface. Unfortunately, no source of energy existed to achieve actual production of the power necessary to make the invention work.
  • 1873 - Sir John Thornycraft constructed a model craft involving an air lubricated hull. While the design appeared functional, again a lack of sufficient power prevented the use of the invention.
  • 1965 - Sir Christopher Cockerell used little more than a couple of tins, a blower, and a pair of scales to create a working model of his theory for an air-cushioned craft. By inserting a cat food tin into a coffee tin, and blowing a jet of air through the gap between the walls of the inner and outer tins, he demonstrated the possibility of a machine that could one day travel on a cushion of air. Aimed at the scales, the blower's jet pressure alone was 1lb (0.45kg). The jet coming out of the tin assembly when brought near the scales gave 3lb (1.36kg). The Hovercraft was taking shape.
  • 1956 - Cockerell dutifully reported his invention to the British Government as was required for any device or concept that might have defensive or offensive potential. The invention was placed on the "secret list."
  • 1957 - The British Government authorized Saunders Roe to review the invention. Saunders Roe report was favourable and Cockerell gained permission to approach the National Research and Development Corporation (NRDC) to see if they might be prepared to give the hovercraft backing if the project could be freed from the secret list.
  • 1958 - With the eventual object of forming a British Hovercraft industry, NRDC ordered an experimental craft, the SR.N1, from Saunders Roe.
  • 1959 - June 11 - At East Cowes, Isle of Wight, the press were present in force and watchedas the model craft was demonstrated to them on a lawn and over a small obstacle course. All went well and the craft performed flawlessly. A few weeks later it performed in a combined operations exercise and won commendations from the very services which had spurned it only a year before. This first skirtless craft could operate only in calm seas up to 1½ft in height and negotiate obstacles of 6 to 9 inches.
  • 1959 - Further work by another inventor, C H Latimer-Needham, on the flexible skirt produced the breakthrough required to enable the craft to maintain a deep enough air cushion for the negotiation of waves and obstacles.
  • 1962 - The SR.N1 was now fitted with a Rolls Royce Viper jet engine for forward propulsion, and now made 50kt with ease instead of it's earlier piston-engined maximum of 35kt. With a 4ft skirt fitted around the perimeter of the craft, the craft could cope with 6 to 7ft waves, cross marshland with gullies up to 4ft deep and traverse obstacles up to 3ft 6in high. Moreover, the craft was now operating at twice its original weight, with no increase in lift power.
  • 1962 - commercialization and mass-production of the refined Hovercraft began with short, regularly-scheduled trips being made by British Airways' Hovercrafts in the British Isles.
  • 1963 - refinement would continue on the Hovercraft increasing its clearance, power, weight distribution, passenger capacity, and safety features. Hovercrafts continue to operate in many locations worldwide as a safe, affordable alternative to the choppy ride of standard boats and ferries.
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