Christopher Cockerell


Sir Christopher Cockerell, was born on June 4th, 1910, the son of Sir Sydney Cockerell, curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University, and designer Kate Cockerell. A collector of medieval manuscripts, Sir Sydney had been an assistant to the Bloomsbury polymath William Morris, was literary executor for Thomas Hardy, and corresponded with Tolstoy.

Christopher Cockerell studied engineering at Cambridge. In 1935, he began working on research for Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company. Among his inventions was an aerial direction finder called "the drunken men," which was used in World War II to bring allied airmen safely home. His team at Marconi also produced the equipment that was used to identify all the German radar stations along the northern European coast, which were bombed in time for D-Day.

He left Marconi in the early 1950s and moved to Norfolk to manage a marina on the Oulton Broad, which led him to the idea that even a heavy craft could be supported on a cushion of air generated by relatively small thrust. Eliminating the friction between boat and water would allow such a vessel to move much more rapidly. He ran a vacuum cleaner tube through an empty can of cat food that he had placed in a larger empty coffee can, and when he reversed the switch to blow air into the larger can, the smaller one hovered over the floor of his boatyard's workshop. In 1955, he built a two-foot-long prototype and he obtained a patent for a vehicle that he described as "neither an airplane, nor a boat, nor a wheeled land craft," which he named a hovercraft. In 1959 he was able to approach the National Research Development Corporation, which formed Hovercraft Development Ltd.

On June 1, 1959, a small one-person vehicle zipped across the English Channel in 20 minutes, four hours faster than conventional crossings. In the next three years, larger hovercraft built by contractors began to carry passengers. In the mid-60s, as hovercraft began commercial service across the Channel, Mr. Cockerell found himself in violent disagreement with management decisions by the Research Development Corporation and resigned in 1966.

Sir Christopher had hundreds of patents to his name, including more than 50 associated with the hovercraft. Cockerell died on June 1, 1999, exactly 50 years after the first Channel crossing by his hovercraft.