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Thursday, June 3, 1999 Published at 04:05 GMT 05:05 UK


UK

Life of a pioneer

The hovercraft 40 years on

Sir Christopher Cockerell invented the hovercraft using a can of catfood, a coffee tin and a vacuum cleaner.

He started to consider the possibility of travel by hovercraft, a vehicle that can move across land or water on a cushion of air, in the early 1950s.

At the time he was living in a caravan in Norfolk, having resigned from electronics firm Marconi to start a business turning out cabin cruisers.

His mind turned to boat design and the idea that a heavy craft could be supported on a cushion of air.

Using a can of cat food inside a coffee tin and reversed air-flow from a vacuum cleaner, he proved his theory was correct on the mud floor of his boatyard.

Military use

Sir Christopher was not the first person to think of the idea. Inventors had tried to build such vehicles for 50 years, but he was the first to overcome the problem of holding the air cushion in place.

By the mid-1950s, after numerous unsuccessful attempts to attract an investor to turn his idea into a commercial proposition, he decided to build a 2ft working model with the help of a local boatbuilder.

Realising it was his duty to inform the government about any new development with a potential military value, he showed the completed model to the Ministry of Supply.

The ministry immediately classified Cockerell's invention "Secret". But after years of wrangling, it finally agreed the idea could be released for commercial as well as military development.

The first prototype, a one-man vehicle called SR.N1, crossed the English Channel for the first time in June 1959.

The success of the SR.N1 led to a proliferation of types and designs.

In June 1962, the first commercial hovercraft service was launched by Vickers across the estuary of the River Dee. Commercial cross-Channel services began in 1966.

Disagreement

Cockerell eventually resigned from Hovercraft Development Ltd, the firm overseeing the development of the industry, in protest at plans to amalgamate all the companies involved in British hovercraft production.

After his resignation, the hovercraft continued to be plagued by high costs of development and design, and dogged by technical problems.

By 1994, only two British-built hovercraft remained in service on cross-Channel routes.

Cockerell was an intensely patriotic man. Despite very poor rewards for his work in the UK, he refused offers of jobs with American competitors.

Yet he always remained angry at the UK's failure to capitalise on new ideas.

Christopher Sydney Cockerell was born on 4 June 1910 in Cambridge, where his father, Sir Sydney Cockerell, was Curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

He was sent to Gresham's School at Holt in Norfolk, where he was a contemporary of the poet WH Auden and the future spy Donald Maclean, but he failed to distinguish himself academically.

Dozens of inventions

He scraped a place at Peterhouse, Cambridge, to study engineering and in 1935 began working on research and development for Marconi.

His work was deemed so important that he was not called up to serve in World War II.

Sir Christopher's first notable invention for Marconi was a two-needle direction finder, a device which during the war brought thousands of Allied airmen home safely.

Altogether, he devised 36 inventions for Marconi, worth millions of pounds, and was paid £10 by the firm for each of them.

He continued to work as an inventor after leaving HDL. During the 1970s he devised a system of rafts designed to use the energy of sea waves to produce electricity.

In his later years he lived at Hythe in Hampshire, where he was able to indulge his hobbies for gardening and fishing.

He was appointed CBE in 1966, became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1967 and knighted in 1969.



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