In the 1920s and 1930s, engineers in the US, Finland and the Soviet Union were looking for ways to build faster boats. Much of the energy needed to move a boat is consumed by the friction created in dragging a hull through water, so one idea was to create a design that would allow the vessel to travel inches above the surface on a layer of air, thus reducing the friction.
But while a few prototypes were built, no one could crack the problem of generating a consistent supply of air in a practical way. World War II then ended the research. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Sir Christopher Cockerell, an inventor who owned a boat firm, came up with a solution – a ring of high-pressure air trapped within a cushion.
This reduced the power needed to stay above the water, and allowed the craft to deal with waves and to travel on land. After first approaching the military, Cockerell got government funding to develop a civilian version, the SR.N1.
On 11 July 1959 the first successful tests took place. A fortnight later the SR.N1 crossed the Channel. There was an explosion of interest and several firms developed improved versions. By 1968 regular services were taking passengers and cars from England to France in 35 minutes.
But rising fuel costs in the 1970s meant conventional ferries remained dominant. The opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 replaced the hovercraft as the most rapid cross-Channel route. In 2000, services on the Channel were wound up.
However, the hovercraft’s manoeuvrability and speed mean that it is still used by coastguards in Britain and Europe, as well as by military forces around the world.