When Was the Inflatable Life Raft Invented?

How long have inflatable life rafts been around, and who invented rubber inflatable boats?

When Was the Inflatable Life Raft Invented?

If you spend any amount of time around water and boats, you might find yourself asking, when was the inflatable life raft invented? These rafts have saved thousands of lives, and they are extremely convenient, but when did they become available in the boating world?

Inflatable boats were thought to have been invented as early as 1839, when the Duke of Wellington began testing the very first inflatable pontoons. Between 1844 and 1845, Peter Halkett developed two different kinds of inflatable boats, both of which were intended for use by Arctic explorers. Around 1910, rubber rafts that could be propelled by a paddle were created.

In this article, we’ll explore the history of the inflatable raft, how it has developed, and how modern rafts differ from their predecessors. These rafts are such a cornerstone of boating today, it’s well worth understanding them!

When Was The Inflatable Life Raft Invented?

You might be wondering exactly what is classed as a life raft, and the answer is that it must have several features to qualify. These include:

  • It should fold up for use in an emergency
  • It must inflate from a small size
  • It must be sturdy enough to reliably keep the stated number of people safe in the water

It is hard to give an exact date for the invention of first inflatable life raft, because many different kinds of inflatable boats were developed and used in different ways. The first inflatable boat is thought to have been Wellington’s pontoon, but this wasn’t exactly a raft. It was followed in 1840 by various inflatable crafts, designed by the scientist Thomas Hancock.

Development continued in the 1840s and 1850s, with Peter Halkett’s creation of two inflatable boats for use in the Arctic, and a further two-man inflatable that could be carried in a bag. One of Halkett’s boats was used in John Franklin’s unsuccessful expedition to the Arctic in 1845.

There is also evidence that John C Frémont may have used one of the earliest inflatable boats in 1842 and 1843, when he explored the Oregon Trail. He described it as an “India-rubber boat” with sides “formed by two airtight cylinders.” His description of the boat claims that it could carry five or six people, plus equipment.

What Different Kinds Of Life Raft Exist?

Today, there are many different kinds of life rafts, and the two major categories include:

  • The soft inflatable boat (SIB). This has no solid hull and it can fold down to an impressively small size, but it will not cope well with wild water or extreme conditions.
  • The rigid inflatable boat (RIB). This has a solid hull that allows it to travel at speed even in rough weather and choppy water.

In some places, commercial boats of a certain size will be required to carry life rafts or lifeboats of some description (although the stipulations may depend on the area and the size of the boat). This is to ensure that the passengers can be evacuated if the boat starts to sink.

Lifeboats differ from life rafts in that they are usually made of fiberglass, and they are solid. You cannot deflate them to fold them up and store them, which means that they are less versatile.

However, their rigidity will make them safer out at sea, even when compared with a RIB, and they are an important aspect of safety on the water. If you are going to be traveling in the open ocean, a proper lifeboat may be preferable to an inflatable raft.

What Does A Modern Life Raft Look Like?

The modern life raft is pretty different from the pontoons and early versions of the explorer’s boat that were developed in the 1800s. Designs may vary, but most modern life rafts are crafted to ensure that they can deploy rapidly into the water, and they float on the surface. They are extremely buoyant and nearly impossible to sink, unless they get punctured.

Many life rafts have a built-in cover that will protect the passengers from the sun, the rain, the wind, and the cold, as well as prevent waves from getting into the boat. Soft inflatable boats are more commonly used than rigid ones, and they have various designs as well.

There are throw-over options and davit launched rafts, as well as other designs, like the Leisure Life Raft and the Cunhong Liferaft. Anyone planning excursions out on the water should have access to some kind of inflatable raft for the sake of safety. In addition to the above stipulations, in order to meet the Safety Features ; Launching Procedure stipulations (SOLAS), life rafts should fulfill the following criteria:

  • They should automatically inflate when the ship sinks, ensuring that they can be deployed even without human input
  • Sufficient airflow must be maintained, even in covered rafts, so that the occupants can breathe
  • The raft should have a double-skinned canopy for insulation and weather protection
  • There should be a means of collecting rainwater, at least one viewing port, and the raft should be able to withstand exposure to sunlight, wind, seawater, and rain for at least 30 days
  • The raft should have a manually controlled lamp that can operate for at least 12 hours, with a white light to make the raft more visible out at sea

There are further stipulations too, but this might help you to understand how far modern inflatable life rafts have come from life rafts in the 1840s and 1850s. There is no exact invention date for this kind of life raft, because it has been gradually honed with a view of constantly increasing safety and improving survival rates.


Hopefully, that has helped to answer the question, "when was the inflatable life raft invented?"

There is no given date for the invention of the inflatable life raft, because this raft has developed over time, in response to many emergencies. However, the first inflatable boats started to develop in the 1940s and 1950s, and the technology to create portable, rubber-based boats has been available since this time. Life rafts are a natural development of this technology.