Man who invented hovercraft using old coffee tins dies at 89

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The Independent Online
SIR CHRISTOPHER Cockerell, the inventor of the Hovercraft and one of Britain's greatest engineers, has died three days short of his 89th birthday at a nursing home in Hythe, Hampshire. Sir Christopher, who died on Tuesday, had a long and distinguished career which involved taking part in the World War II effort to build radar, designing and developing an amphibious craft that could ride on a cushion of air, and patenting nearly 100 inventions.

His finest hour came with the first manned "flight" in 1959 of a Hovercraft designated SRN1 (Saunders Roe Nautical 1) developed from ideas Sir Christopher developed using coffee tins and a vacuum cleaner. The limitations of the first Hovercraft however soon became apparent when it failed to negotiate waves of more than 50cms high. A flexible skirt was developed to overcome the difficulties and Hovercraft technology took off.

In 1962, a Hover-link began across the river Dee and an SRN2 carrying 48 passengers began operating across the river Severn in 1963. A Hover- link over the Solent was established in 1964. In 1969, the SRN4 made its first cross-Channel journey and eventually provided a service for 250 passengers and 30 cars - opening a new route to the continent for thousands of holidaymakers.

Cockerell was knighted for his achievements in 1969 but had to relinquish his intellectual property rights on the Hovercraft to the government's National Research Development Corporation for pounds 150,000.

Sir Christopher read engineering at Cambridge University and took a job with Marconi, where his work merited 36 patents for which he was paid just pounds 10 each. He said it was "terrible value". Although he later became a champion of the British inventor he thought that giving up his patent rights was a dutiful act at the time.

In his later years he was bitterly critical of the way Britain had treated some of its greatest engineers, such as Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine. "Why have we let Germany and Japan and the countries of the Pacific seaboard overtake us and outsell us?" he said. He blamed the education system for making children specialise too earlyand turning out "half-educated" people. "That's all right for cogs, but is hopeless for the future leaders of our society."