The Hovercraft: A History

The Hovercraft: A History

by Ashley Hollebone


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Revealing the development of the multi-faceted hovercraft and its many roles, from racing and leisure to travel and rescue

 The hovercraft was first created in 1959, when Sir Christopher Cockerell came up with a prototype that crossed the English Channel. The SRN1, the first ever hovercraft, is now proudly housed by the Science Museum and this invention enjoys an active role in many arenas. This detailed book delves into the craft's history, from the early days of its development through to its commercial and military applications. It looks into the exciting world of hovercraft leisure, cruising and racing from amateur to Formula 1, and also explores the important role the hovercraft plays in rescues, whether on water or delivering aid around the word in places that helicopters can’t reach. Finally, it details the types of hovercraft in use today, and what the future holds.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752464794
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 835,281
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.60(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Ashley Hollebone is a transportation journalist who has written for many magazines including the Independent, Top Gear, and What Car? and is the author of The Hovercraft Story.

Read an Excerpt

The Hovercraft: A History

By Ashley Hollebone

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Ashley Hollebone
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9051-9



Six thousand years ago, during the fourth millennium B.C., modern man's hairy ancestors were formulating the idea of a wheel hewn from stone, which they later made from wood, having discovered this material was easier to work with and could be more durable. They had proved that moving objects could be made easier by a simple method, one that would enable them to advance their lives and civilisations. Six thousand years later, and only a short time after Elvis had a hit with Hound Dog, another strange but forward-thinking concept would emerge in the twentieth century. By now the human population of the world was familiar with the aeroplane in both military and civilian applications. Cars were continuing to get faster and faster, ships were getting bigger and bigger, while trains were slowly turning from imperial steam to diesel and electric traction.

Earth is a wonderful place but few of us ever really take note of the natural beauty that is all around us, or at least not far from wherever we may be. Our planet is covered by a thick blanket of air which is over 200 miles in depth, commonly referred to as the atmosphere, although there are different areas to be found within this zone. These include the stratosphere, jet stream and ionosphere, all of which vary in air pressure; the higher you rise, the lower the pressure of air and thus the lower the amount of energy required to achieve high speeds as the earth spins on its axis below. High altitude jets, such as the now sadly redundant Concorde, ferried their passengers on the very edge of space (58,000ft), while satellites glide even further above us as we sleep.

We have three main elements that make up our environment, these being land, sea and air. Man has achieved transportation through all of these media but only after many years of development. Since the innovation of the wheel, the boat is the oldest form and records can prove that thousands of years have passed since the first examples were constructed. The aeroplane is considered a definite twentieth-century breakthrough, though medieval genius Leonardo da Vinci proved that powered flight was a definite possibility. So on the face of it, transport history would seem to suggest that these three elements have been dealt with, and that man has firmly mechanised earth. Of course, as with all things, it is only a matter of time before someone will try to improve an existing creation or in some cases form a totally new one.

If we examine the three modes of transport we will find flaws in all of them. Ships are the most commercially used mode of transport but are slow; in most cases the maximum speed of a cargo ship is not more than that of the top speed of a 100-year-old motor car! Where an increase in power is obtained it does not translate into forward momentum as that extra power is needed to punch through the water. Boats in their state of movement require quite a lot of energy and high-speed vessels have also presented efficiency challenges. A ship is a much larger version of a boat which may be used for private and recreational use, although in both cases these vessels have their limits, requiring docks or dredged channels to berth.

Wheels are the most practical for everyday day use but they too have limitations. Trucks can carry heavy loads but nowhere near the quantity a ship can carry, while the size of load is constricted by the roads on which it will travel. Further to this, they are heavily affected by traffic congestion, a problem not suffered to any great extent in the air or at sea. The wheel is also greatly affected by severe weather conditions; when placed under stress a wheel can slip in icy conditions and lose all traction. Snow chains and desert ballon tyres provide a practical solution in some cases but the drawbacks to the wheel in extreme conditions are far greater than can be rectified with aftermarket creations for the masses.

Flying is by far the fastest way to get around but also attracts huge costs. Aircraft only stay airborne at speed and require large amounts of energy to get off the ground, as well as to stop! Generally aircraft loads are quite small by comparison to other forms of transport at smaller costs.

To be quite blunt, the faster you travel the more it costs. As the ever-increasing world population demands its resources and consumer items at an ever-increasing pace in the manner of 'I want that and I want it now!' then so does the need follow for speed in delivery. The aircraft being too costly, shipping being too slow and the wheel being limited to land it was clear that a gap existed.

By the middle of the twentieth century an unorthodox-looking invention entered public knowledge; however despite its appearance it did not emerge from a secret government test site in the Nevada Desert or from a Cold War British air base but a small, rustic boatyard in Norfolk, the same place where turnips and mustard originate, and later plastic sports cars! However, while the creation's home may have been simplistic, its qualities for the future were anything but. This was to become quite possibly one of most futuristic-looking vehicles of the postwar industrial era, the hovercraft.

As with all forms of movement, friction is the inevitable barrier that has to be overcome. The hovercraft is based around the idea of eliminating friction, and while the hovercraft itself did not appear until the middle of the Cold War era, ideas of transport focusing on overcoming friction originated centuries earlier.

Whilst da Vinci's concept of a human-powered flying machine never made it past his famous sketch, it paved the way for future aviators. Da Vinci's flying machine has in later years been built by countless historians who have proved that this medieval genius was in fact the inventor of the helicopter, although it was aviation firm Sikorsky that would make it a reality some half a millennium later. The theory of hovering can therefore be traced back to the artistic, rapidly advancing Renaissance era.

The next chapter in the air cushion history comes from the early eighteenth century when, in 1716, Swedish philosopher and designer Emmanuel Swedenborg devised an air-cushioned vessel which resembled an upturned dinghy with a cockpit in the centre. Apertures on either side of this allowed the operator to raise or lower a pair of oar-like air scoops, which on the downward strokes would force compressed air beneath the hull, thus raising it above the surface. The project was short-lived and it was never built, for Swedenborg soon realised that to operate such a machine required a source of energy far greater than that which could be supplied by a single human occupant.

Through the next century, things progressed with a range of practical experiments with air cushion transport. This time the location was England in the 1870s, when engineer John Isaac Thornycroft experimented by forcing air underneath the hull of a small boat. Thornycroft was no stranger to the water as he was already involved in constructing boats for the Admiralty from his yard on the Thames. Thornycroft's idea was to reduce friction of the hull as it passed through water, enabling a reduction in drag so an increase in momentum. He constructed a form of crude bellows system which was pumped from inside, drawing air from the top and then vented to the underside of the hull. The idea worked, as air bubbles formed and displaced water. However, the power source required to make this method a viable proposition just wasn't around at that time. It wouldn't be until a century later that the frictionless vehicle idea would 'surface' once again. Thornycroft died in 1928 but his legacy would remain to the end of the twentieth century as his firm went on to build the famous RAF motorboats for air rescue duties during the Second World War. The Thornycroft name was also used for commercial motor vehicle production, most famously with fire engines and trucks. A great number of Thornycroft's original working models have thankfully been preserved and can be seen on display at the Hovercraft Museum in Hampshire.

Now we reach the final chapter in the experimental phase of the concept of air cushion theory when in 1955 another highly skilled but very much independent man of modest means transformed centuries of experiments into a practical product. Dr Christopher Cockerell (later knighted) is known as the inventor of the machine we call the hovercraft, a word he also coined, but few are aware of the man himself. To appreciate invention you have to appreciate and understand the inventor and when you delve into Cockerell's life history it's not hard to see why it would be such a character that would create this breakthrough.

Born on 4 June 1910, Cockerell was part of a very well-placed family in society. His father, Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, was a private secretary to Sir William Morris and from 1908–37 was Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The Cockerells were a talented family. Sir Sydney's parents were Sydney John Cockerell, a London coal merchant, and Alice Bennett, the daughter of a City watchmaker, while his elder brother, Theodore, was a biologist. His younger brother, Douglas, an eminent bookbinder, had a son, Sydney Maurice, who was two years Cockerell's senior and a celebrated and innovative designer of marbled papers.

Cockerell studied engineering at Peterhouse, the oldest and smallest college of Cambridge. It seems a strange turn of events that such a historic old city would lay claim to the world's most futuristic contraption of the decade, if not the century! After his studies at Cambridge, Cockerell gained employment at the Radio Research Company until 1935 when he moved to Marconi. He stayed with the wireless telegram firm until 1950.

Cockerell's father once described his son as 'no better than a garage hand'; despite this he had a vast capacity for invention. Throughout his life Cockerell filed numerous patents for a wide variety of designs and inventions. He created thirty-six in his short time with Marconi alone, and despite his reservations, his father funded his son's files for many of his patents. Over history it is often the case that great people of our time can be interlinked with other such personalities. Cockerell's father was no exception as he was associated with the likes of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and George Bernard Shaw among others, who were often house guests.

During the war years Cockerell worked with a highly skilled elite team at Marconi developing radar, a development which Winston Churchill believed had a significant impact on the outcome of the Second World War. Cockerell left Marconi in 1950 and with the financial aid left by his dear wife's father, he and his wife Margaret were able to purchase a small boatyard in Suffolk. It wasn't long before they had established a new venture at the Old Wherry Dyke in Somerleyton which had in the previous century been used as a quay for a Victorian brickworks, although it was at that time home to broad cruisers which were growing in popularity. A new company was registered, Ripplecraft, through which Cockerell would run his marine business of hiring out cruising boats as the demand for holidays on the Norfolk Broads increased. Each year Cockerell would plan to lay a new keel over the winter period so that a new boat would be ready for hire in the following summer. There were alterations made to the conventional Broadland cruiser as Cockerell insisted on placing the steering wheel at the front in a car-like fashion so that hire customers could enjoy the panoramic views of the countryside when the large sliding roofs were open. Ripplecraft was an active and vibrant little boatyard and the small fleet of Broadland cruisers allowed Cockerell to provide a living for his family, as well as to fund his development work on new technology.

He didn't run this venture alone, however; behind the scenes were other highly skilled and very much underrated men that had great experience in design, construction and operation of boats. One such man was Douglas Rushmer, who remained managing director of Ripplecraft until 1979. Doug worked very closely with Cockerell on the testing of various air cushion ideas, including a side wall concept which utilised a modified clinker-built rowing boat. Thin side members were added which penetrated the water line. At the keel a transverse slot was cut from where air would enter under the bottom of the craft. An industrial vacuum cleaner was used to provide the required air pressure. The results proved that friction had decreased and this led Cockerell to carry on and eventually purchase a small motor launch named Spray that he could use to develop the idea to another level under powered motion.

Spray was modified with a large centrifugal air fan that was powered from its propeller shaft. Air was vented over the bows of the launch and to determine the pressure pattern a series of simple water height gauges were installed through the bottom and could easily be monitored.

But despite all of this Cockerell still had his day-to-day business to run and playing with toy boats like boys on the riverbank on the way home from school does not pay the bills. All of this kept Cockerell busy, but his brain was buzzing for further creation and during the winter of 1953 he started to give his air cushion idea some serious thought.

His experiments led him to construct large-scale models which would test his idea about making a boat ride upon a cushion of air. Cockerell spent much time in his quest to pursue a frictionless craft. One example of his experiments involved a small dinghy which had a special pump to blow high-pressure air underneath and around the edge of the hull. This high pressure air was then retained by the aid of a rubber curtain which then created lift. This working test bed was to become the first step in the development of the hovercraft as we know it. It was one Saturday evening in June 1954 that Cockerell stumbled upon a method that would actually turn all of his hard work and forward thinking on air cushion ideas into a viable, fully working example. He had created the very item that makes a hovercraft hover – the momentum curtain. For some time he had been playing with the notion of devising some sort of contained pressured segment on the underside of the hull. Cockerell thought of having a plenum chamber; a 'storage' chamber where the entering air would be contained for a little longer, and thus pressurised, so as to reduce the power needed for given lifting capacity.

Making good use of what he had around him, Cockerell used two tin cans of slightly different circumferences: a Lyons coffee tin and a Kitekat cat food tin. The smaller tin was recessed within the larger one and fixed at the top, leaving a gap around the sides. A hole was then made in the top of the large tin and from there an industrial air blower hose was connected. The result created a desired plenum chamber as the high-pressure air entering the tin was forced to dissipate around the sides of the smaller tin, exiting at a greater pressure from the underside of these two cans. This method, seemingly so simple, created a highly effective air curtain and test model that would go on to prove the fundamental basis of the future of the hovercraft. This was called the 'momentum curtain' and Cockerell filed yet another patent, one of his most significant to date, although it made him very little money.

Cockerell used this simple coffee tin experiment to demonstrate the principle and goings-on of the plenum chamber. The cans were made in such a way that it was possible for the smaller inside can to be removed so that the exiting thrust air could be directed onto a pair of scales with weights on. The test showed that the scales would not move much when the tin was placed over the scale; however, when the smaller tin was reinserted, a plenum chamber was created and the tin rig offered up to the scale once more. This time the weights lifted, showing a clear advantage in air having the momentum curtain as for the same amount of power a greater exiting force was reached. The test rig proved highly successful. Now all Cockerell needed to do was build a working model that would show this in a more practical and suitable manner.

It is quite easy to reproduce this simple test yourself using basic household items just like Cockerell did himself. You can even use plastic drinks bottles.

A full working model of the concept was built, which resembled a cross between a flying helmet from a Dan Dare adventure comic and a spaceship. Yet this balsa wood contraption was powered by a small model glow-plug aero engine. Even more primitive, compared to its futuristic appearance, was the fact that it was tested on bowling greens on a tethered rope. The design was of Cockerell's mind but the construction wasn't by his hand. He simply did not have the time to make models whilst managing the growing boatyard, so he called on the skills of his colleague Desmond Truman to build the working model of this revolutionary design. This model was Cockerell's first working example which he would use to prove his air cushion theory to potential investors. Like the models of John Thornycroft of the Victorian era, Cockerell's original is preserved at the Hovercraft Museum. It was at this time that Christopher Cockerell gave his new design the name 'hovercraft'.

Another company was formed alongside Ripplecraft, Hovercraft Ltd. The small ramshackle old shed which had been used in the past to store unused tools and boat bits became the workshop for the most iconic vehicle of the decade if not the century, similar to the Apollo rockets. But of course, this was not a multi-billion dollar NASA plant, this was the Norfolk countryside.


Excerpted from The Hovercraft: A History by Ashley Hollebone. Copyright © 2012 Ashley Hollebone. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Warwick Jacobs,
1 Where it all Began,
2 The Workings of a Hovercraft,
3 SRN-1: The First Hovercraft,
4 The Next Chapter ...,
5 The British Hovercraft Corporation and the SRN-5/6: Hovering the World,
6 BHC SRN-4 Mountbatten Class: The 'Super 4',
7 Hoverspeed,
8 Military Hovercraft,
9 Wing in Ground Effect: The Age of the Ekranoplan,
10 Light Hovercraft,
11 Hovertravel: The World's Oldest Commuter Hovercraft Service,
12 Griffon Hoverwork,
13 The Future,
Appendix 1 Patents of Sir Christopher Cockerell,
Appendix 2 Griffon Hoverwork Sales List, 1983–2012,

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