The hovercraft was invented by British boat builder Christopher Cockerell in 1955. The theory behind one of the most successful inventions of the 20th century – named the Hovercraft – was originally tested in 1955 using an empty cat food tin inside a coffee tin, an industrial air blower and a pair of kitchen scales.
Cockerell’s idea was to build a vehicle that would move over the water’s surface, floating on a layer of air. This would reduce friction between the water and vehicle.
To test his hypothesis, he put the smaller tin can inside a larger can and used a hairdryer to blow air into them. The downward thrust produced was greater when one can was inside the other rather than air just being blown into one can.
He developed the first practical hovercraft designs in his boatyard on the Norfolk Broads, which – with the assistance of the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) – led to the first hovercraft to be produced commercially – the 4-ton SR-N1, made by Saunders-Roe at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.
The SR-N1 crossed the English Channel in 2 hours and 3 minutes on 25 July 1959.
Saunders-Roe trademarked the name “hovercraft”, thus other manufacturers called their vehicles ACV’s (Air Cushion Vehicles).
A series of lightweight hovercraft were developed over the next few years, including the SR-N5 which was licensed to be built by the US military and saw service in the swamps and jungles of Vietnam.
The largest hovercraft built at the Saunders-Roe factory was the SR-N4, or the Mountbatten Class, which was designed to carry 254 passengers and 30 cars. The four steerable propellors on the roof were the largest in the world, each 19-feet across.
Businessman Freddie Laker chartered a 24-seat Vickers Armstrong craft for the first cross-channel passenger service in 1962.
The hovercraft service from Dover to Calais reached its peak in 1986 when 3 million passengers made the crossing. However, by October 2000 the route was closed, in part due to competition from the new Channel Tunnel rail service.
The hovercraft continues to be developed for the world’s elite amphibious military units. The largest is the Soviet Zubr-class, an air-cushioned landing craft capable of carrying 550 tons – enabling the craft to deposit three tanks (or eight armoured personnel carriers) with 375 troops onto a beach.