25 July 1959: First hovercraft crosses the English Channel

This day in 1959 saw the first hovercraft cross the English Channel. By 1968, regular services were taking passengers and cars across in 35 minutes.

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 armed forces, Cockerell got government funding to develop a civilian version, the SR-N1.

On 11 June 1959, the first successful tests took place. A few weeks 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 quickest 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 armed forces around the world.

Recommended

25 January 1947: the world’s first video game is patented
This day in history

25 January 1947: the world’s first video game is patented

On this day in 1947, Thomas T Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann submitted a patent application for their “Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device” – the world's …
25 Jan 2021
The charts that matter: inflation, bubbles, and booze
Economy

The charts that matter: inflation, bubbles, and booze

As US stocks head higher into bubble territory, John Stepek looks at the charts that matter most to the global economy.
23 Jan 2021
23 January 1967: Milton Keynes founded
This day in history

23 January 1967: Milton Keynes founded

The most famous of Britain's garden cities, Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, was founded on this day in 1967.
23 Jan 2021
Quiz of the week 16-22 January
Economy

Quiz of the week 16-22 January

A Japanese car-maker announced plans to continue its UK operation, safeguarding 6,000 British jobs. But which one? And what else happened this week? T…
22 Jan 2021

Most Popular

Why we won’t see a house-price crash in 2021
House prices

Why we won’t see a house-price crash in 2021

Lockdown sent house prices berserk as cooped up home-workers fled for bigger properties in the country. And while they won’t rise quite as much this y…
18 Jan 2021
Inflation is the easiest way out of this – just don’t expect politicians to admit it
Inflation

Inflation is the easiest way out of this – just don’t expect politicians to admit it

The UK government borrowed £34.1bn in December, a record amount for that month. Britain's debt pile now amounts to 100% of GDP. How are we going to pa…
22 Jan 2021
When will the US stockmarket bubble burst?
US stockmarkets

When will the US stockmarket bubble burst?

With US stocks more expensive than before the Wall Street crash of 1929, there are growing signs of “mania”. But what will push markets over the edge?
22 Jan 2021