Hundreds of thousands of people ride them every year, from tourists visiting the British Isles to postal workers delivering goods to remote Alaskan villages. British engineer Christopher Cockerell patented the hovercraft, which travels on a cushion of air over land and water, in 1955-but he struggled to arouse any interest in his device. It wasn’t until his prototype crossed the English Channel in 1959 that it really took off.
Born in 1910 in Cambridge, England, Cockerell showed an early aptitude for engineering, motorizing his mother’s sewing machine. His father, an art museum curator, wasn’t impressed; he commented that his son was “no better than a garage hand.” In spite of this, Cockerell studied engineering at the University of Cambridge and in 1935 joined Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company, where he received 36 patents, most related to radio navigation aids for airplanes.
When Cockerell and his wife came into a small inheritance in 1950, he took a brief hiatus from inventing, leaving Marconi to run a boatyard. There, Cockerell began investigating ways to use air to cut down on friction between a boat’s hull and the water. Using powerful fans, he reasoned, he could create a cushion of air that would enable a craft to hover over the water, and even over the ground. After early experiments with empty tin cans, a vacuum cleaner, and a pair of kitchen scales, Cockerell had a local boat builder construct him a 60-centimeter-long working model. He patented the device and dubbed it the “hovercraft.”
By 1957, Cockerell had demonstrated his device to British military officials. They weren’t interested in developing it but still classified it as secret, so Cockerell couldn’t pitch it elsewhere for more than a year. After the hovercraft was declassified in 1958, he finally convinced the National Research Development Corporation, a government-funded agency, to develop it for commercial use.
The first hovercraft skimmed across the English Channel in the spring of 1959, and Cockerell and his “British flying saucer” became celebrities. By 1962, regular hovercraft passenger services were popping up around the United Kingdom. Still, Cockerell felt he was never adequately compensated for his ideas; in a 1996 interview with the London Times, he commented on the low salary he received while developing the hovercraft. On June 1, 1999, Cockerell died-exactly 40 years after the hovercraft was first launched.