Eccentric engineer

The eccentric engineer: the original inflatable boat

Image credit: Getty Images

On any trip to the seaside these days you’re likely to see inflatables drifting worryingly out to sea. Where did this madness start? Not surprisingly, with an inventor and amateur engineer.

Peter Halkett was the son of one of the directors of the Hudson Bay Company, so had grown up in what was then the wild and largely unexplored (at least by westerners) fastnesses of Canada. It must have been a childhood full of stories – the voyageurs returning from trapping expeditions, British adventurers probing the edges of this new dominion and native peoples who had lived for millennia in areas so inhospitable to Europeans that few could survive a month there.

So, it’s perhaps not surprising that Halkett had something of a wanderlust himself, returning to his native England in the 1840s to become a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Halkett believed he had more to offer the Navy than just his youth and enthusiasm. He had become fascinated with one of those British naval expeditions that we’d rather not talk about –Franklin’s disastrous Coppermine Expedition of 1819-22.

Led by John Franklin, who would go on to other bigger, disastrous expeditions, this was an overland trek to the north coast of Canada to survey the area eastwards of the mouth of the Coppermine River as part of the Navy’s great goal of securing the Northwest Passage.

To say things had gone badly would be an understatement. The heavy expedition canoes were badly damaged in storms and then dropped and broken – Franklin thought deliberately – by the voyageurs given the job of carrying them over a vast country of sharp rocks known as ‘the barren lands’. Losing the canoes certainly lightened the load, but when the group reached the wide and fast-flowing Coppermine River, they had reason to regret their decision. Unable to get to camp on the other side, the starving group had to wait for one enterprising member to fashion a tiny boat from willow and canvas (there were no large trees this far north).

In the end, only 11 of the party of 22 men ever reached home, where they faced the (probably true) accusation of cannibalism.

This folly had got Halkett thinking. Travelling across a bleak, treeless land of lakes and rivers required something better than a wooden canoe for transport. He turned to the new miracle substance of the day: rubber, in particular, rubberised canvas.

Rubberised cloth had started to become popular after Charles Macintosh created his first waterproof fabric in 1824 by sandwiching a layer of rubber dissolved in naptha between two sheets of canvas. Obviously, a waterproof cloak would be a good idea in the Canadian north, but what if it was also a boat? And so Halkett’s boat cloak was born.

The idea was ingenious. Halkett broke down the elements required for a functional boat and reinvented them in rubberised clothing form. The cloak itself consisted of an egg-shaped, watertight, inflatable tube, in four sections (to allow for a puncture in one or more compartments). In the back of the cloak was a pocket containing a small set of bellows and the blade of an oar. The shaft of the oar formed a walking stick for the adventurer to carry. A large umbrella, which provided protection from the weather, doubled as a sail should the wind conditions be favourable. When inflated, the boat could carry six people comfortably and dismantled, the entire kit only weighed 3.4kg.

Having tested his contraption on the Thames in the winter of 1844 – where his brochure described it as bobbing around “like a duck” – he took it with him on active service on HMS Caledonia and HMS St Vincent during the Experimental Squadron mission 1844-45 so he could test his device in various sea conditions, even setting himself adrift in the Bay of Biscay on what thankfully proved to be an unusually calm day. News of his invention quickly spread amongst explorers, receiving very welcome praise from John Richardson, who had nearly died on the Coppermine expedition that had so inspired it.

Enthused by this, Halkett went on to produce a larger, tougher boat that was carried in a rucksack, like many inflatable paddleboards today. His boat held two men, one paddling on each side, and doubled up as a waterproof groundsheet when camping. This version even caught the attention of John Franklin himself, who ordered one for his fateful 1845 Northwest Passage expedition.

Orkadian explorer John Rae, famed as the first explorer of Canada to utilise Inuit survival techniques in the far north, also took a Halkett boat on his expeditions, noting “a portable air-boat … ought to be the companion of every explorer.” He and Richardson later also ordered one for their 1848 voyage to discover what had happened to Franklin, as did many future searchers for the lost expedition.

All that remained was commercial success, and with their usual foresight the Lords of the Admiralty, whilst commending Halkett’s ingenuity, refused to bring the invention into general service.

Halkett tried then to persuade the public that his boat might have recreational use for fishing, but again he was some 150 years ahead of his time and the project was shelved. Today, only two of Halkett’s boats survive.

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