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Christopher Cockerell

Inventor of the Hovercraft

Christopher Sydney Cockerell was born in 1910 at Cherry Hinton near Cambridge, the son of Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, sometime private secretary to Sir William Morris and from 1908 to 1937 Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The Cockerells were a talented family. The sons of Sydney John Cockerell, a London coal merchant, and Alice nee Bennett, the daughter of a City Watchmaker, Sir Sydney’s elder brother, Theodore, was a biologist, his younger brother, Douglas, and eminent bookbinder; while Douglas’s son Sydney Maurice, two years Christopher’s senior and also a bookbinder, was a celebrated and innovative designer of marbled papers.

The theory behind one of the most successful inventions of the 20th century, the Hovercraft, was originally tested in 1955 using an empty KiteKat cat food tin inside a coffee tin, an industrial air blower and a pair of kitchen scales.

Christopher Cockerell was initially testing out the idea that it was possible to produce a cushion of air between the bottom of the tins and the surface of the scales. Once he had established that this was possible he decided to experiment with more sophisticated models. Although his first tests were carried out on dry land his main aim was to prove that drag or friction between boats and water could be substantially reduced if the ‘craft’ floated on an air cushion. And so the ‘hovercraft’ came in to being. Indeed Cockerell came up with the word too.

Despite an interest in the arts, Cockerell read Engineering at Peterhouse, Cambridge. After Cambridge he worked for the Radio Research Company until 1935 and then for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company from 1935 until 1951.

During the war years Cockerell worked with an elite team at Marconi to develop radar, a development which Churchill believed had a significant effect on the outcome of the Second World War, and Cockerell believed to be one of his greatest achievements. Whilst at Marconi Cockerell patented 36 of his ideas.

In these early days Cockerell’s idea was patented and immediately put on the secret list. Nothing happened and Cockerell became increasingly agitated. Eventually, in 1958, after declassification, the National Research Development Council (NRDC) funded the design and construction of SR.N1, the world’s first man-carrying amphibious hovercraft.

On 25th July 1959, she made a crossing of the English Channel, from Calais to Dover, with Cockerell aboard as human ballast, on the 50th anniversary of the first aeroplane crossing of the Channel. Cockerell’s dream had become a reality. Since then hovercraft have carried over 80 million people and 12 million cars across the Channel and have been in continuous service for over 30 years.

Besides hovercraft he is attributed with the invention of wave power in the late 1970s, hovertrains and sidewall hovercraft (catamarans).

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