1716 - EMMANUEL SWEDENBORG, philosopher and lateral thinker dreamed up the idea of an air cushion vehicle which would be powered by very enthusiastic oarsmen. Good idea, but the power sources were unavailable for comment.
1870 - JOHN THORNYCROFT experimented with a boat which was designed to move along on an air film trapped under its hull. Great idea, but the steam engine power source was not up to the task.
1916 - DAGOBERT MULLER, from Austria, built an air film torpedo boat. Great invention, great name, but unfortunately 1916 was not a great year for Austria and The First World War sank his boat....not to mention quite a few others.....
1950s - Dr WILLIAM BARTELSON, a country doctor in America devised and built a series of 'air cars', which he called 'Ground Effect Machines', in order to get around the problem of visiting patients in the more waterlogged parts of his practice. He, and other enthusiasts, were beaten to the patent punch in England by CHRISTOPHER COCKERELL, who was, after years of intense British indifference, credited as the inventor of the hovercraft.
Hold on a second.
Life is never so simple. Cockerell approached various aircraft and ship building firms with his idea, but no one wanted to know, because no one could decide what his invention actually WAS.
He built his first model and took it to the corridors of power and the Men at the Ministry immediately slapped a 'Top Secret' label on it. It was only after they heard that OTHER countries were developing similar vehicles that the invention was FINALLY allocated to Saunders Roe, (flying boat manufacturers) to develop in conjunction with the National Research Development Corporation. Finally, in May 1959 the SRN1 flew for the first time.
1960s - DECADE OF THE HOVERCRAFT - America gave us the moon landings and the Monkees. We gave the world the Beatles, Carnaby Street, the World Cup Winners in 1966, 'Wonderloaf', Alf Garnett, and Hovercraft.
In the '60s the hovercraft went from being a garden sized flying cup and saucer (the SRN1 was also known as 'the Flying Saucer') to a cross-channel passenger and car ferry giant. These were the years when hovercraft were 'cool', and often reported as 'an exciting new form of transport that will revolutionise the way we travel'. This was when the classic designs came forth. They were aircraft technology vehicles. They smelt and sounded like aircraft, could go as fast as speedboats and could go where no ship, car, tractor, tank, ambulance or bus had ever gone before - and all without being called 'Enterprise' .
All the enduring designs of hovercraft happened in these ten years. Apart from tweaks in the technology, little has changed since.
Saunders Roe and Westland gave us the beautiful SRN2, the Bulldog Drummond style military SRN3, the 'workhorse' SRN5 and the 'stretched' workhorse number two, the multi-purpose SRN6. Finally the two companies merged to become The British Hovercraft Corporation and went on to build the mighty SRN4 and eventually develop the military BH7.
Vickers Armstrong had also been working on hovercraft design throughout the late 1950s and had come up with the experimental VA1, the Jeep-ishly functional VA2 and the first passenger ferry, the VA3.
While Hovercraft Development Ltd kept on developing the air cushion vehicle, other companies such as Denny and Hovermarine devised water-borne 'sidewall' craft. Tracked hovercraft (which have YET to get off the ground, so to speak) were designed and tested, and hovercraft built from plywood and plastic with inflatable hulls started to appear. Vosper Thornycroft (boat builders famous for their WW2 torpedo boats and coastal craft) carried out pioneering work on semi amphibious craft. Meanwhile smaller companies like Pindair and Britten Norman contributed more than most people realize towards the modern boat styled air skimmers (just off the ground enough so that it matters) which proliferate to-day.
Proliferate? Where do they proliferate? you might ask. Well, apart from one or two famous exceptions, certainly not in the public passenger market! Which is sad because, statistically and historically, the hovercraft IS the safest form of transport in the world - EVER!
No, they play hidden roles in parts of the world that you and I have never heard of, exploring places with names I can't pronounce, and carrying out such work as geological or geographical studies. They are also used in offshore roles such as fast attack/patrol/landing craft. Now and then someone uses them for things like rescue vehicles and for humanitarian support missions. More often than not they are used for military purposes, and even now there are some very unusual hovering machines being developed 'behind closed doors' - and we are back to flying saucers again...
So now the best 'classic' hovercraft of the 1960s are consigned to the history books (which is a figure of speech I'm afraid, as there aren't any history books about hovercraft!). Most of these vehicles were made in relatively small numbers and do not exist anymore. The few originals are either rotting away fast, or are at the Hovercraft Museum in Lee on the Solent on the South Coast of England, where selfless volunteers do their best to preserve them.
Oh and by the way, if you are wondering if there is a hovercraft museum closer to you, then wonder no more; the museum at Lee on the Solent is the ONLY hovercraft museum in existence....anywhere...
In the meantime, racing hovercraft as a sport has been around for decades and is still flying strong to-day. There is also a growing world-wide interest in model hovercraft building and a model hovercraft racing fraternity is forming in various embryonic ways in various countries.
Enthusiasts aside (and we are out there believe me!) the world at large is about as interested in hovercraft as they are in the shy nocturnal animal in the dark cage in the forgotten corner of the zoo. (I always made a point of looking in those darkened cages just in case I saw something wonderful...) But once upon a decade, these wonderful hovering animals of the century of speed roar loud and fly without wings - and they astound everybody who sees them... even if it is only for a few fleeting seconds.
If you have waded through this meandering, and highly incomplete 'about', and you want to read something of the science and such, you could try the following...The hovercraft is to all intents and purposes a species which is on the brink of being forgotten out of existence. Records of most hovercraft are also pretty rare. Hence the creation of this site, and the drawings which comprise its contents.
Discover the Hovercraft by Kevin Jackson. (Flexitech LLC)
- ISBN 0975341405
This excellent little book is succinct and educational. It covers all the important stuff for any new enthusiast, and has some pretty good pictures.
Hovercraft by Angela Croome (Hodder and Stoughton - 1984)
- ISBN 0340 33054 6
This book also covers helicopters and vertical take off aircraft. It is currently out of print, but a few copies are still around if you search. Try the Hovercraft Museum.
The Hoverspeed Story by Miles Cowell and John Hendy (Ferry Publications)
- ISBN 1 871947 X
A smashing little book which tells a good story and has some wonderful photographs. Probably available from the publisher, or to be found in certain shops in the Kent area.
To the Source of the Yangtze by Dick Bell. (Hodder and Stoughton 1991)
- ISBN O-340-53852-X
Narrative/reportage of the 1990 Yangtze River UNICEF humanitarian expedition led by Mike Cole, hovercraft explorer extraordinaire. You will probably have to search around for this one etc etc.
There was once a magazine called Air Cushion Vehicles around, but this cerebral and very professional publication PROBABLY went out of print years ago. If you know otherwise, please let me know!
Past editions of Jane's Surface Skimmer Systems do exist and can probably be viewed at the Hovercraft Museum. This publication has now been superseded by Jane's High-Speed Marine Transportation - information available at Jane's Information Group In the sixties, many souvenir postcards of hovercraft were published, but most, if not all of these are out of - yadahh yadahh yadahh...