Sir Christopher Cockerell Obituary

The Guardian - 4th June 1999



Sir Christopher Cockerell, who has died aged 88, was best-known as the inventor of the hovercraft. His earlier work was in electronics and radio communications, and he was involved in pioneering secret developments in radio navigation systems vital to the RAF in the second world war, and in the development of radar.

Cockerell belonged to a dynasty of great British engineers that began with those responsible for the Industrial Revolution. He was a prolific inventor, and the patent he filed on the hovercraft - on December 12, 1955 - was only one of 70 he obtained in a lifetime of inventing.

In his teens, his father offered him £10 for every patent he took out. By the time Cockerell had invented the hovercraft, the practice was discontinued. It was becoming too expensive. His most recent inventions included advances in harnessing wave energy.

Cockerell belonged to a long line of men of vision Britain has produced, profited from and mistreated. His confrontations with officialdom in getting the idea of the hovercraft accepted became a symbol of a national malaise - and of Britain's failure to exploit the commercial potential of the ingenuity of its scientists and engineers. But he was intensely patriotic and refused many lucrative offers to join the brain drain of the 1950s and 1960s to America.

Cockerell's father, Sir Sydney, was a famous typographer who became the most influential curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Cockerell went to Gresham's School in Norfolk, where he was a contemporary of WH Auden and the future spy Donald Maclean. He struggled with most subjects, except mathematics, and recalled himself as self-centred and slow to make friends.

At that stage, he had already expressed more interest in engineering than in the antiquities that attracted his mother and father, and he found his parents' associates boring. He wanted to talk about railway engines and motors, while visitors like George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad or TE Lawrence wanted to talk about literature and public affairs.

When his parents' guests arrived, he retreated eagerly to his bedroom to build his own crystal radio sets or a steam engine to drive his mother's sewing machine. She spurned his steam-driven device, preferring to turn her machine by hand. This gave him a maxim he held for life: people did not really want new ideas, even when they involve a better way.

At 17, he went to Peterhouse College, Cambridge, to study engineering. Much of his time was spent taking motorcycles to pieces or racing them. He said it taught him essentials for an inventor: a sense of basic engineering, what was possible, what wasn't, and why. From 1933 to 1935, he did research in radio and electronics at Cambridge, but believed there was discrimination against younger people, and feared it would restrict his chances of doing anything new.

He joined Marconi, starting at £250 a year, and stayed for 15 years, working first with the development of the early broadcasting equipment for television. In 1939, his group turned its attention to the war effort. He led a team that produced the first radio direction finder, with which every British bomber was soon equipped. Development began in October 1939, and the first instrument was installed in an aircraft four months later. Cockerell rejected suggestions that he was a genius, ascribing his success to logical practicality and sound engineering. This radio direction finder - which saved the lives of many aircrews - was the achievement of which he was most proud.

The world of electronic engineering had expanded dramatically in 10 years, but the industry had developed strong bureaucratic tendencies. Cockerell was always an uneasy committeeman. His ideal employer was himself.

So he turned to another interest: boat design. His wife Margaret, an art student when they married, supported him in a new venture. Her father left the couple enough to buy a boat business on the Suffolk Broads, where Cockerell's thoughts turned to new challenges - in particular, the hovercraft. He began by asking how boats could be made to go faster by reducing the friction of the water, and developed ideas for creating a layer of air below a boat.

The idea was not new. The first man credited with research into the concept was John Thornycroft, a British engineer in the 1870s, who made test models to check the air cushion effect. However, this was not practical until the invention of the internal combustion engine, with its high power-to-weight ratio. This made the hovercraft a reality.

Cockerell demonstrated the principle with a now famous experiment involving two empty coffee tins and the fan from a vacuum cleaner. He used these to show that by blowing air into the gap between two cans, one inside the other, a vessel could be lifted on an air cushion. No one in government or private industry was interested in the notion, until a boatbuilder friend made a proper model that Cockerell could use to demonstrate the idea.

One of Cockerell's treasured anecdotes was of a meeting in Whitehall with Admiralty and Ministry of Supply officials jumping on chairs to get out of the way as the machine charged around the office spewing fumes.

The first response of Whitehall was to put the idea on the secret list, which meant Cockerell could not discuss it with anyone. Eventually, he was allowed to ask the government's National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) to support him. The corporation put up £1,000 for further development.

The first commercial hovercraft, SR.N1, was built by Saunders Roe, then owned by Westland, the military and civilian helicopter makers. It successfully crossed the English Channel from Calais to Dover on July 25, 1959, with Cockerell on board as ballast, and was the forerunner of the bigger passenger hovercrafts that were to later cross the Channel daily.

The SR.N1 was capable of 30mph, at a height of 15 inches. Its limitations soon became apparent. It could not negotiate waves more than 50cms high or land obstacles more than 24cms high. So a flexible skirt was developed; from then on hovercraft technology made rapid progress.

Cockerell was knighted for his achievement in 1969. As it was, he fought hard and unsuccessfully in 1969 to get a better offer than the £150,000 lump sum offered to him for his invention by the NRDC in full settlement of his claims. After tax, he was left with only £28,000 for 10 years work.

Cockerell then pressed the NRDC for funds to run a new research establishment of his own, but by then relations had soured. That was also the year when the New Forest Rural District Council refused him planning permission to build a laboratory in the back garden of his home at Hythe, saying residents objected to the noise. He replied that his whole purpose was to build a more silent hovercraft, and bounced back with experiments with wave power and other ideas.

The academic world recognised a genius in its midst, and honours were showered on him. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded honorary doctorates from several universities. He is survived by two daughters.

• Christopher Sydney Cockerell, inventor, born June 4, 1910; died June 1, 1999.
By Dennis Barker and Pearce Wright