The world's first hovercraft, the Westland SR-N1, 1959.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
The first known design for a hovercraft was made by Emmanuel Swedenborg as far back as 1716, but dismised as impractical. Sir John Thornycroft produced models in the 1870s, but as the internal combustion engine had not yet been invented, he lacked a suitable power source. In 1955 Sir Christopher Cockerell (1910-1999) filed his first patent for a vehicle carried on an air-filled cushion, and in 1959 the SR-N1 became the first practical hovercraft. It used a gas turbine engine to power a large aircraft propeller, which drew air into a space beneath the craft. The air cushion was contained by a rubber skirt, and a second propeller moved the vehicle forward. Hovercraft have been succesfully utilised as ferries, asault craft, and survey vesels.