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June 11, 2024 9 mins

On this day in 1959, the world’s first hovercraft set off on its maiden voyage from the Isle of Wight.     

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
This Day in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio.
Hello and welcome to This Day in History Class, a
show that glides its way through history one day at
a time. I'm Gabe Lucier, and today we're looking at
the birth of a whimsical new form of transportation that

(00:21):
allowed passengers to float across land or water on a
cushion of air. The day was June eleventh, nineteen fifty nine,
the world's first hovercraft set off on its maiden voyage
from the Isle of Wight. The experimental Sci Fi vessel

(00:46):
that launched that day was designed by British engineer and
inventor Christopher Cockrell. But it's worth noting that the idea
for an air cushioned vehicle has been considered as far
back as the eighteenth century. In fact, Sir John Thornycroft
even secured a patent for his early design in the
eighteen seventies, but he was never able to produce a

(01:07):
working model, as there were no engines at the time
that could sustain the needed horse power. By the mid
twentieth century, though, power constraints were no longer an issue
and the path was clear for someone to finally make
the idea a reality. Christopher Cockerell's experimentation with the hovercraft
began in his boat yard in nineteen fifty three. He

(01:30):
knew that a boat's speed was hindered by the friction
it makes as it moves through the water, so he
started imagining a vehicle that could float on a cushion
of air and move over the surface of the water
rather than through it. The approach would greatly reduce the
amount of friction between the vehicle and the water, but
would it actually work. To find out, Cockerrell conducted an

(01:54):
experiment using two empty cans, a hair dryer, and a
pair of kitchen scales. First, he blew air into one
of the cans and measured the amount of thrust it produced.
Then he placed the smaller catfood can inside of the
larger coffee can and blue air into both of them.
Just as he had hoped, the amount of frust produced

(02:16):
was greater when one can was inside the other, because
the layer of air between them resulted in less friction.
Satisfied that his theory was sound, Cockerell set to work
designing a full scale hovercraft and securing the funding to
build it. It took several years for the project to
find the right backer, but in nineteen fifty eight the

(02:38):
National Research Development Council contributed one hundred and fifty thousand
pounds to help build a prototype. By that point, Cockerel
had already formed a working relationship with Saunder's Row, a
British aerospace and marine engineering company based on the Isle
of Wight, just off the south coast of England. The

(02:59):
ship builder was awarded the contract to bring Cockerell's design
to life, and development began in earnest that fall. There
were several hiccups along the way, but in less than
nine months a team under the direction of chief designer
Dick Stanton Jones, managed to build the first fully functional hovercraft,

(03:19):
known as the SR N one or Saunder's Row Nautical one.
The prototype measured twenty nine feet long, twenty four feet
wide and weighed approximately six thousand, six hundred pounds. It
was shaped a lot like a flying saucer, as the
press was quick to note, with the straight line stern
being the only thing to break up the sweeping curve

(03:42):
of the hull. The craft itself consisted of a large
aluminum buoyancy tank, onto which a lightweight deck had been fastened.
At the center of the deck was a raised cylindrical chimney,
which contained the craft's single engine and a horizontally mounted
fan at the the a ship's bow. Just ahead of
the chimney was a small open air cabin for the

(04:04):
captain and crew. Build As a cross between an aircraft,
a boat, and a land vehicle, the SR and one
was a hybrid in the truest sense, capable of operating
on both land and water, or operating above them to
be precise. The craft's radial piston engine delivered four hundred

(04:25):
and thirty five horsepower to the vertical lift fan, allowing
it to hover fifteen inches above the surface and move
at a top speed of forty knots or just over
forty six miles per hour. The air generated by the
fan could be blown out of ducks mounted on either
side of the vehicle to provide forward and backward propulsion,

(04:47):
and with the aid of rudders, the air could also
be diverted in different directions to allow the pilot to
turn left or right. Once all the required system checks
had been completed successfully, the SR and one on's first
flight was scheduled for June eleventh, nineteen fifty nine. The
event took place at the saunders Row facility on the

(05:08):
Isle of Wight and was held before an audience of
invited members of the press. The day's demonstration was only
intended to show the craft's capability to move over land,
but because the journalists and attendants responded so enthusiastically, the
company decided to go ahead with the first water based
flight as well. After a successful demonstration over concrete, the

(05:31):
hovercraft was towed out into the solent A strait between
the Isle of Wight and the British Mainland. Saunders Row
chief test pilot Peter Lamb flew both demonstrations that day,
which were documented on film as part of the Look
at Life series of theatrical documentary shorts. Following the initial
test flight and its positive coverage in the press, Saunder's

(05:55):
Row announced that it would move forward with an even larger,
more powerful prototype. The company's hope was that at some
point in the near future a hovercraft would be able
to cross the English Channel in as little as twenty minutes.
The National Research Development Council was hoping for that outcome
as well. In fact, the whole reason they invested in

(06:17):
the hovercraft in the first place, was with the aim
of establishing cross channel services using larger vehicles. It was
believed that trips aboard a hovercraft would not only be
faster than traditional ferryboats, but more cost effective as well.
It would take some time to build the larger scale prototype, though,
so in the meantime, Saunders Road decided to stage the

(06:40):
first channel crossing using a modified version of the SR
and one and so. On July twenty fifth, nineteen fifty nine,
just over a month after the hovercraft's first flight, the
same vessel crossed the English Channel from Calais to Dover
in two hours and three minutes. The crew that day
was returning pilot Peter Lamb, navigator John Chaplin, and Christopher

(07:05):
Cockerell himself, acting in his own words, as movable ballast.
Since that initial voyage, more than eighty million people and
twelve million cars have crossed the English Channel by hovercraft.
The service ran for the better part of four decades,
but it was never as fast or as inexpensive as

(07:27):
was initially hoped. Finally, in the year two thousand, the
hovercraft service was discontinued due to competition from ferries and
the Channel Tunnel. That said, a private hovercraft service still
operates today, shuttling passengers between the Isle of Wight and
South Sea. You'll also find plenty of other hovercrafts still

(07:48):
in use by various militaries and search and rescue teams
all over the world, especially in areas where the land
surface is uneven, where the sea levels are low, and
of course they also make pretty fun recreational vehicles if
you can afford it. For his role in the development
of the hovercraft and for his other contributions to British engineering,

(08:10):
Christopher Cockerel was knighted in nineteen sixty nine. He then
lived in additional thirty years as Sir Cockerel, and passed
away on June first, nineteen ninety nine, at the age
of eighty nine. As for his creation, the SRN one,
it was retired from operation in nineteen sixty three and

(08:30):
has since been preserved and placed on public display at
the Science Museum at Rawton, oh And if you do
make the trip to see it, keep an eye out
for the Royal Dent. That's the name for the ding
that Prince Philip put in the hovercraft's bow when he
took it for a joy ride in December of nineteen
fifty nine, the Philip's Eternal Shame. The damage was never repaired.

(08:58):
I'm Gabe blues Gay and hopefully you now know a
little more about history today than you did yesterday. If
you'd like to keep up with the show, you can
follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at TDI HC Show,
and if you have any comments or suggestions, feel free
to send them my way by writing to This Day

(09:18):
at iHeartMedia dot com. Thanks to kazb Bias for producing
the show, and thanks to you for listening. I'll see
you back here again tomorrow for another day in History class.

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