Eccentric Engineer: The story of the hovercraft and ‘silly chap’ Sir Christopher Cockerell
Image credit: GeorgeLouis at English Wikipedia
This is the story of how Sir Christopher Cockerell invented one of the iconic forms of transport of the 20th century, only to be snubbed by bureaucrats for its absurdity.
Perhaps the greatest gripe of Sir Christopher Cockerell was that society didn’t really value engineers. This might seem a shade rich coming from a man who was awarded a CBE, a knighthood and fellowship of the Royal Society, but his own career bore it out.
Cockerell did not invent the hovercraft per se. Ship designers had for years been trying to solve the problem of water drag and Sir John Thornycroft patented an ‘air-cushion ship’ in the 1870s. However, engine technology of his day ensured these designs never left the drawing board. By 1927, the great Russian rocketry pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had laid out the theoretical basis for travelling on a layer of air. Yet the hovercraft we know and love is associated with only one name.
Cockerell was an autodidact engineer with an interest in everything from antiquities to zoology, but his great love of radio got him a job at Marconi. His particular interest was in creating radio direction-finding equipment, his last job of 1939 being to fit one of his devices in the Cunard liner Mauretania.
Yet it was the coming war that brought his talents to light. In 11 weeks he devised and tested a direction-finding system for bombers, known as the ‘drunken men’, and went on to produce 120,000 units. He later designed the radar-finding equipment used to locate German radar stations before D Day.
After the war, Cockerell found life at Marconi increasingly dull, despite his flurry of patents (98 in his lifetime). In 1951, when an offered promotion meant more admin, he received the push he needed and resigned intent on doing something different.
In fact, he had started work on his new plan in 1947 when he and his wife bought a caravan-building, boat-hiring business. Not that caravans was what interested Cockerell. He wanted to build fast boats, but was frustrated by that great problem of all naval architects – drag.
Aware that a cushion of air between the hull and water was the holy grail of fast boat design, he went about building a model, not with boat parts, but with two nested cylinders hooked up to an air pump. This produced a ring of downward thrust four times more efficient than any previous attempt. With a Lyons coffee tin, a can of cat food and a vacuum cleaner, he laid down the basic principles of the ‘hovercraft’.
The peacetime establishment was reluctant to take on such a novel idea. Eventually Lord Louis Mountbatten persuaded the military to take a look, but as Cockerell later quipped, “the navy said it was a plane not a boat; the air force said it was a boat not a plane; and the army was ‘plain not interested’”.
The invention was developed under the auspices of the National Research Development Corporation and its subsidiary, Hovercraft Developments Ltd, which appointed Cockerell as director. Work began on a manned model, built by Sanders-Roe on the Isle of Wight, and prototype SRN-1 was rolled out in 1959 when it crossed the Channel to mark the 50th anniversary of Bleriot’s flight.
However, there was a problem. With a hover height of just one foot (30cm), the craft had difficulty crossing waves greater than twice that height. Cockerell’s solution was a rubber ‘skirt’ around the craft which increased the hover height to 4ft.
Development now continued apace and testbeds were devised for hover railway carriages, low-loaders and even ultra-smooth hospital beds for burns patients. Commercial success followed, with orders for civilian and military craft, including huge cross-Channel car ferries.
However, all was not well. When the government tried to force the merger of all Britain’s burgeoning hovercraft companies, Cockerell, fearing a lack of competition would stifle development, resigned from the board in 1966. A few days later, a curt letter from the managing director of NRDC informed him that he had also been sacked as chief engineer with just eight days’ notice and no pension.
Although Cockerell did finally receive some compensation in 1972, his summary dismissal by bureaucrats with little understanding of what he created had hurt. Honours had been heaped upon him, but the greatest honour, to be taken seriously as an engineer, proved elusive. By the 1970s, he began trying to answer the question of what to do when fossil fuels run out. To this end, he created a wholly novel wave-power machine, but again, government support dwindled then stopped. With it went the chance for Britain to be a world leader in wave energy generation.
It often seemed to Cockerell that grandees and bureaucrats had little interest in those ‘silly chaps’ who invent things. Yet as he wryly noted: “But for the silly chaps we would all still be living in the Stone Age.”
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