Christopher Cockerell – a Gentleman and a Genius
On 4th June 2010 Frances Cockerell unveiled a column dedicated to her father to mark the centenary of his birth at Somerleyton in Suffolk. The 20 foot high pillar was crowned with perhaps the most well known of his many inventions, a bronze model of the hovercraft. A flypast by a Spitfire from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight was included in the ceremony in tribute to his pioneering work with the RAF in World War II developing radio navigation systems.
Christopher Cockerell attended Gresham’s from 1924 to 1928. According to a Woodlands housebook he played both cricket and rugby for his house. The Gresham tells us that he won the Meryon Prize for manual training in 1925, and took part in a Country Life shooting competition in 1928. A contemporary of W.H. Auden and the notorious Donald Maclean, he struggled in most subjects, except maths, and recalled himself as self-centred and slow to make friends. In his teens his father offered him £10 for every patent he took out, a practice discontinued as too expensive by the time he invented the hovercraft!
He went on to study engineering at Cambridge, and was one of a number of pupils like David Keith-Lucas(Chief Designer of Short Brothers, designer of the Jump Jet) and Ian Proctor(dinghy designer) who became involved in scientific research after university. Working for Marconi for 15 years, in 1939 Cockerell led a team that produced the first radio direction finder with which every British bomber was soon equipped. This was the invention he was most proud of and one that saved many lives.
Turning his attention to boat design, Cockerell took over the Ripplecraft yacht station at Somerleyton where he began developing the idea of using a layer of air below a boat to make it go faster. His famous experiment apparently involved two empty coffee tins and the fan from a vacuum cleaner! Government and industry could not be convinced at first, but a friend made a model to help demonstrate the idea, and a favourite anecdote involved Whitehall officials jumping onto chairs to escape as the machine charged round their office spewing fumes. Eventually funding was granted and the first hovercraft, built by Saunders Roe, crossed the Channel on 25 July 1959 with its inventor as ballast. This was the forerunner of the bigger passenger hovercraft that went into commercial service in 1966. Since then about six million people have travelled by hovercraft.
Cockerell always rejected suggestions that he was a genius, preferring to be thought of as practical, logical and a sound engineer. He was a prolific inventor, taking out seventy patents in his lifetime and was still designing five years before he died in 1999. When the hovercraft had first come to public attention it was described in the papers as a ‘flying saucer’, such was the secrecy surrounding it. Although he was knighted in 1969, Sir Christopher always experienced problems getting his ideas taken seriously and enjoyed few financial rewards for his work. Reflecting on the pitfalls on an inventor’s life in Britain, he wrote “Everything is stacked against you, but for some reason some silly chaps seem to be driven to it … which is perhaps just as well or we should still be living in the Stone Age.”