Christopher Cockerell. He is billed as the inventor of the hovercraft, and we suppose he is. Certainly, the British engineer was the first to patent the modern idea of the hovercraft. However, Christopher Cockerell wasn't the first person to attempt to create a hovercraft. Oh no. He was the very first person to perfect the idea, but for a long time, people had been trying to create these vehicles. They knew that the ability to make a hovercraft was there, but they weren't quite sure how to make it work.
The Early Attempts At a Hovercraft
Some historians would argue that the idea of a hovercraft was born in Sweden, sometime around the 1700s. A scientist, called Emanuel Swedenborg came up with the rather novel idea of a surface-effect vehicle. These are vehicles that rely on air pushing towards the ground to create movement, much in the same way that a hovercraft does. Although, this is pretty much all we know about his idea. Emanuel didn't really create anything or leave behind any plans. His contribution pretty much had no impact on the hovercraft industry whatsoever. However, it felt only right to mention him. This is because a lot of people will argue that hovercrafts only came about in the 1960s. However, the idea of this sort of movement has been floating around for centuries.
The first proper attempts that we really see at a modern hovercraft began in the 1870s with a guy called John Isaac Thornycroft. He came up with the idea of a boat that works pretty much like a hovercraft. This means propelled through the water, using an air-cushion and the power of lift. The problem? He was full of huge ideas, but he had no way to power the vehicle. Chances are, his idea would have worked. It was a great idea. However, this was the 1870s. Nobody had produced an engine anywhere near powerful to do everything that John wanted to do.
Now, let's zip on ahead to the First World War. Dagobert Muller von Thomamuhl, an Austrian, developed an air-cushion boat. It couldn't travel over the land like a modern hovercraft, but it worked. It went through the water at a blisteringly fast pace, and it almost entered military use. However, nobody really had any use for the vehicle at the time. The war was close to over.
Over the next few years, various people had attempts at creating hovercrafts. Even Ford got in on the action. They designed a prototype hover car. Some people even gave theoretical ideas that could create vehicles that were able to travel at 1,500mph+.
None of these ideas came to fruition. Those that did had massive flaws that would have resulted in them not being all that effective. However, luckily for the hovercraft industry, Christopher Cockerell was working incredibly hard, and a new age of transportation tech was about to be entered.
Christopher Cockerell And HIs Hovercraft
Now, Christopher Cockerell didn't create the hovercraft alone. He had a team working with him. Although, since the hovercraft was his idea and he lead the project, it was mostly Christopher who is remembered.
The hovercraft idea was born in the UK. Even today, the country is incredibly proud of the invention although, admittedly, nowhere near as proud as they were in the 1960s to 1980s when the hovercraft was really popular.
In the 1950s, Christopher created multiple versions of the hovercraft, and he struck upon a design that worked. The military were, initially, interested. As a result, he wasn't able to patent the design right away, and the design became top secret. However, eventually, the military decided that it had no need for a hovercraft, and Christopher set to work on his first design.
The very first hovercraft was the SR.N1, built by Saunders-Roe, in the United Kingdom. On the Isle of Wight, to be specific. We won't lie. The first design of the hovercraft wasn't perfect. It had several flaws that had to be corrected. However, let's be honest, this was a prototype. It was the very first hovercraft. It wasn't supposed to be perfect. It was a way to iron out the technology.
Over the years, the SR.N1 went through a rapid period of refinement. All the while, Christopher Cockerell was sitting on his patent, likely making a lot of money. Just around the corner, plenty of shipbuilders and aircraft builders were about to start building their own hovercraft.
The Commercial Use Of The Hovercraft
One of the main benefits of the hovercraft is that it is fast, and can traverse a lot of different terrains with ease. As the design of the hovercraft was perfected, various hovercraft routes began to open. While there were some routes in various places around the world, this was very much a British invention. Nearly the whole of the hovercraft's life has been confined to the United Kingdom. Yes. Militaries around the world use the tech. However, commercial passenger use is very much nearly just a British thing.
The SR.N2 was designed to get passengers from the mainland UK to the Isle of Wight. This was superseded by the SR.N6, and that is when travel with the hovercraft really took off.
Up until the SR.N6, most hovercraft travel was over shorter distances. However, hovercraft manufacturers were not happy with that. Oh no. They had much bigger targets in sight, and this meant traversing the English Channel. After all, if they could get a hovercraft quickly from the UK to France, they would be able to compete with the various ferry companies. In fact, no. They would be able to beat the various ferry companies.
In 1966, the very first commercial passenger route from the UK to France via hovercraft opened up, and it was to much fanfare. Two years later, the SR.N4 was added to the route, allowing vehicles to make the journey too. People loved it. It was a zippy way to travel, and a fairly innovative idea. Plus, Brits loved the idea of traveling on British-made transport.
There was a problem, though. The hovercraft didn't fare particularly well on these long-distance routes. It was very unreliable, and it would require almost constant maintenance. In fact, each time it docked, it needed to be maintained. As a result, the hovercraft routes kept on being shut down. If you had somewhere to be quick, you probably wouldn't travel via hovercraft. Although the designers were constantly working on improvements to the design, eventually, they got the hovercraft to the point where it didn't require so much TLC.
The (Commercial) Death Of The Hovercraft
The hovercraft continued to make Channel crossing until 2000, which wasn't too bad. The route almost died off in the 1970s due to rising fuel costs.
What really killed the commercial passenger routes was the fact that it just wasn't comfortable to travel that way. The hovercrafts could hold nowhere near the same number of people as the ferries could, and the opening of the Channel Tunnel meant that there were comfortable and fast ways to make the route that didn't involve hopping on something that was fairly unreliable.
It is a great shame, to be honest. No land-based vehicle is able to cross the channel anywhere near as fast as the hovercraft was able to. The hovercraft could get across in just 22-minutes, while the Channel Tunnel takes 35-minutes. Still fast, but the extra speed was quite nice.
The hovercraft gave it a good go, but it was never to be as a passenger vehicle. However, that doesn't mean that the tech died off. Oh no. There are still a lot of hovercrafts produced every single year, although the tech isn't really moving forward all that much nowadays. Although, we suppose that there is only so much that can be done to improve the vehicle.
Because the hovercraft is versatile, you will find it in use in various militaries, rescue services, and those that often find themselves traversing over difficult surfaces e.g. large deserts, swamps, etc. The tech is incredibly useful there, and a variety of companies are producing some awesome, smaller hovercrafts.
The Future of Hovercraft
We can't see there being that much of a future in hovercraft, sadly. It will continue to be used for practical purposes, but it will never reach the dizzying heights that it did in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the tech behind the hovercraft will likely be used in the future.
For example, there are a variety of ideas to create trains that rely on hover tech to make them travel faster. The tech has even been used in various vacuum cleaners.
This is a great shame, really. if the tech could have been perfected, it would have made one of the most wonderful transportation devices imaginable. However, there are only so many improvements that can be made and, believe us, hovercraft designers have been working hard to try and get them done. It just isn't happening.