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Cockerell, Sir Christopher Sydneyfree

  • R. L. Wheeler

Sir Christopher Sydney Cockerell (1910–1999)

by unknown photographer, 1979

Cockerell, Sir Christopher Sydney (1910–1999), electronic and mechanical engineer, was born at Wayside, Cavendish Avenue, Cambridge, on 4 June 1910, the only son in the family of one son and two daughters of Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell (1867–1962), the distinguished director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and his wife, Florence Kate (1872–1949), the daughter of Charles Tomson Kingsford of Canterbury. Sir Sydney's strong personality made a real relationship with his son very difficult. In contrast, his mother, a talented artist and a superb illuminator, lived by the interplay and subtle shades of things and was much loved by her children. Christopher was also influenced by the many distinguished visitors to their home, including George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, Freya Stark, Siegfried Sassoon, and T. E. Lawrence. However, the interest he showed in Lawrence's 1000 cc Brough Superior motorcycle led his father to categorize the boy as 'no better than a garage hand'.

Cockerell's earliest education was at home, where a succession of governesses found him very difficult, because all his interest was centred on science and engineering. He built his own crystal radio set and made a small steam engine to drive his mother's sewing machine. He was disappointed to find she much preferred to operate it by hand. His father could not understand the boy's interest in such devices or that he preferred a book entitled The Boy Electrician to The Life of Rembrandt. When Cockerell was eleven his parents sent him to Lydgate House preparatory school at Hunstanton in Norfolk. He was there for three years, during which time he built a complete wireless set for school use. His next school was Gresham's, at Holt, also in Norfolk, where he met W. H. Auden and Donald Maclean. While there he read all of Dickens's novels and again built a complete wireless set.

Although he found academic subjects difficult, with hard work and determination Cockerell obtained a place at Peterhouse, Cambridge, when he was eighteen. He spent much of his spare time overhauling motor bikes, which he raced, winning several cups. He spent many of his long vacations with Captain George Spencer-Churchill, who fostered his lifetime interest in antiquities and also allowed him to shoot pigeons. When Cockerell's father gave him £20 for his twenty-first birthday he bought a Mauser 0.22 rifle with telescopic sight and silencer. His father was disgusted, but it enabled him to reach a sufficient standard to shoot for the university.

Electronics engineering

Following graduation with an engineering degree, Cockerell was employed for two years at W. H. Allen & Sons of Bedford, engineers, working as a pupil engineer. The company had a problem with pouring molten iron into moulds, which Cockerell solved by persuading them to build an additional 5 feet on the top of their furnaces. In 1934 he returned to Cambridge to research radio and electronics. He then joined the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company at the Writtle site, near Chelmsford. At that time the only means of electrical amplification was the thermionic valve. Standard radio frequency (RF) connectors were unknown and instrumentation was primitive. Cockerell began work on the first BBC outside broadcast vehicle, due to begin service in 1936, and on the short-wave television beam aerials for Alexandra Palace. The technology involved had no precedent. Only seven months after he had joined Marconi, the company filed his first patent for this work. In 1937 he was promoted head of aircraft research and development. In the same year, on 4 September, he married Margaret Elinor Belsham (1913–1996). She really was the love of his life and a wonderful support to him throughout their married life. This support was of prime importance during the Second World War, when he worked exceedingly long hours. During this time they lived in Baddow Road, Chelmsford.

Cockerell's last design before the Second World War was a radio direction finder for the new Cunard liner Mauretania. In October 1939 he was visited by a wing commander of Bomber Command who required radically new radio communication and navigation equipment. During lunch Cockerell wrote a specification on the back of an envelope; he received an order the next day, a quick response possible only in wartime. Working seven days a week, Cockerell and his team produced a prototype for installation in a bomber in only eleven weeks, an incredible achievement. The device solved the homing problem by enabling the pilot to fly on the correct course with a special left–on track–right display soon known as the ‘drunken men’. By June 1940 production equipment was being installed in bombers. The RAF required 1000 units per week, and the firm of E. K. Cole was contracted to assist Marconi with production. During the course of the war some 120,000 R1155 receiver units and 55,000 T1154 transmitters were produced, at a cost of £4000 per set. Cockerell regarded this equipment as the most important work of his career, providing bomber crews with highly effective navigation, communication, and homing devices. Marconi offered Cockerell promotion in 1940 but he refused to leave his team, whom he regarded as of equal importance.

This work was followed by the provision of a universal display unit for the Royal Navy, based on the Type 960 radar, enabling a single operator to keep control of the radar in very heavy seas and combine this data with other information, such as compass readings. The Fleet Air Arm was provided with a radio beacon and receiver to enable pilots to return safely to their aircraft-carriers. Shortly before the D-day landings Cockerell and his team were required to produce equipment to locate precisely the German radar stations on the coast of France. Again working very long hours, they succeeded in providing a special recording receiver for Pathfinder aircraft which swept all radar frequencies, marking a moving paper chart when the appropriate signal was detected. The equipment was codenamed Bagful and was used successfully to identify German radar stations prior to the first landings.

After the war, Cockerell's team worked on a new range of airborne equipment, which secured the position of Marconi in this field. They also patented a hyperbolic navigation system for civil aircraft. This was followed by a patent solving the problem of positioning an aircraft on final approach. In 1948 Cockerell moved to the Marconi research laboratories at Great Baddow, near Chelmsford. Many other basic electronic ideas evolved, bringing the total number of patents in Cockerell's name to thirty-six, the last in November 1950, which concerned improvement in determining the height of an aircraft for traffic controllers using ground-to-air radar. He declined an offer of further promotion, which would have involved more administration; this was not to his liking and caused him to consider his whole future. He resigned on 8 August 1951 as he wanted a life involving more imagination and initiative.

Invention of the hovercraft

In 1947 Christopher and Margaret had decided to invest the inheritance she had received from her father in a boat-hiring and caravan-building business at Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft. When Cockerell left Marconi they sold their house and devoted all their time to this new business, called Ripplecraft Ltd. Initially he designed motor boats, all of which embodied new ideas. However, his restless mind soon caused him to think of bigger things, and he decided that the power required by motor boats could be significantly reduced.

Cockerell considered that the only way water drag could be reduced was by introducing air between the hull and the water, and he purchased a 20 foot long ex-navy launch for his experiments. These were not very successful, and so he decided to carry out a basic experiment with a small industrial electrical fan mounted above a Lyons coffee tin, with a Kit-e-Kat tin inside it to provide a downward circular jet of air directed at his kitchen scales. He found that the downward thrust with the inner tin in place was four times that without it. He had invented the amphibious hovercraft and patented the idea in December 1955. Tests with a special streamlined model 2½ feet long and 2 feet wide powered by a model aircraft engine showed a speed of 13 knots could be achieved, and Cockerell was delighted.

Cockerell could not get funding from leading industrial companies until his friend Lord Somerleyton enlisted the help of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who saw the potential of the idea and arranged a meeting of Admiralty representatives and the assistant director of aircraft research, R. A. Shaw, with Cockerell and his patent agent. The Admiralty were not impressed, but Shaw arranged for its potential to be examined at the Ministry of Supply and placed it on the secret list.

Shaw and Cockerell visited Saunders Roe on the Isle of Wight, who agreed to undertake the work, provided they were paid. Their detailed proposal was accepted by the Ministry of Supply in 1957. After carrying out comprehensive investigations and experiments Saunders Roe produced a favourable report in May 1958, supplemented in July by a proposal to build a manned model. Two months later a further report assessing the future potential included the suggestion that a 400 ton cross-channel passenger and car ferry was feasible.

Meanwhile, owing to an inadvertent disclosure, the invention had to be declassified, and the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) agreed to provide financial support. Cockerell was advanced £1000 to defray patent fees, and Saunders Roe received a contract from the NRDC to construct their proposed manned model in October 1958. This was quickly followed by the NRDC forming a wholly owned subsidiary called Hovercraft Development Ltd (HDL) in January 1959. The chairman and managing director was Dennis Hennesey, one of NRDC's directors, and Cockerell was a director and technical consultant. Their first office was in Cockerell's house, White Cottage, in Victoria Grove, East Cowes, within a few hundred yards of the Saunders Roe design team at Osborne. In 1960 the company moved to The Grove, at Hythe, on the west shore of Southampton Water. Later on Cockerell bought a house close by, and 16 Prospect Place remained his home for the rest of his life.

In eight months the Saunders Roe manned model, SRN1, was completed, and it was shown to the press on 11 June 1959. Trials were successful, and on 25 July the craft crossed the English Channel in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Blériot's first aircraft crossing. The craft's hover height of approximately 1 foot was soon found to limit its performance in wave heights of double the hover height, and it was fitted with peripheral flexible extensions, soon nicknamed skirts. These were made from rubber materials reinforced with nylon cloth. When a vertical height of 4 feet was reached it was found that overwave performance was very satisfactory.

Meanwhile the enthusiastic team at HDL were working on a variety of applications of the hovercraft principle. Several full-scale man-carrying craft were built, both amphibious and sidewall. A special team was set up to investigate hovercraft trains, and an experimental track was set up near Cambridge. The movement on cushions of air of very large loads such as redundant gasometers and smaller 1 ton loads was investigated. One team produced hospital beds for burns patients. The new company filed more than 200 patents, 59 in Cockerell's own name. (Cockerell filed a total of 98 patents in his lifetime.)

Commercial development

The success of SRN1 led to the demand for HDL licences to build hovercraft, which were granted to Saunders Roe, Vickers, Folland, and Cushion Craft in the United Kingdom, Bell in the United States, and Mitsui and Mitsubishi in Japan. A licence was refused to Russia. The demand for financial support led the NRDC to encourage the United Kingdom companies to merge their hovercraft interests into a single company. Cockerell vehemently opposed the idea, as he considered it would significantly reduce development and remove competition. The NRDC persisted, and the British Hovercraft Corporation was formed from Saunders Roe—then a division of Westland Aircraft Ltd—and Vickers, with two NRDC directors on the board. Cockerell persisted in his opposition and decided to resign as director of HDL. In a letter dated 23 March 1966 from John Duckworth, the managing director of the NRDC, which wholly owned HDL, Cockerell was informed that the board had decided to accept his resignation. The letter also stated that 'it would not be appropriate' for him to continue in the executive position of chief engineer of HDL, and that this responsibility 'should come to an end', giving him just eight days' notice.

Cockerell was appointed CBE in 1966, elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1967, and was knighted in 1969. He was delighted with the latter, regarding it as a 'very romantic' honour. It was not until 1972 that he received compensation of £150,000 for the loss of his shareholding in HDL. He was unhappy that he did not receive a pension.

In 1964 Cockerell, together with Edwin Gifford and Don Robertson, a pilot, formed a company called Hovertransport Ltd to operate a large passenger/car ferry, designated the SRN4, across the Solent. This craft was conceived by Saunders Roe/British Hovercraft Corporation. British Rail decided to buy the first craft for operation across the English Channel, and Hovertransport withdrew their interest in the craft. Six craft were built, four were eventually widened, and two were both widened and lengthened. The last two, which could carry some sixty cars and more than 400 passengers, had operated successfully across the channel for over thirty years when they were withdrawn from service in October 2000. Cockerell was very proud that these craft carried many millions of passengers and cars across the channel and were the world's largest amphibious commercial hovercraft. British Hovercraft Ltd invested a great deal in research and development in the 1970s and employed Cockerell for seven years as a consultant.

From 1961 to 1974 the British government took a considerable interest in the military potential of hovercraft. An interservice hovercraft and trials unit, set up at Lee-on-Solent to evaluate their capabilities, found that the craft were very suitable for amphibious assault and mine counter-measures. The former role was taken up by the United States services, who built nearly a hundred tank landing craft, which were used in the Gulf War in the 1990s. In 1983 the Royal Navy ordered a craft for the mine counter-measures role, but the order was cancelled in a defence cut of 1985. Military and paramilitary craft continue to operate, and new craft are being designed in many countries throughout the world. The UK, the USA, Russia, Norway, Finland, Saudi Arabia, and China are among the nations using such craft.

In the mid-1970s Cockerell turned his attention to the provision of the world's energy when fossil fuels are exhausted. In 1974 he took out three provisional patents on the principle of extracting energy from waves. He and Gifford formed a company called Wavepower Ltd to exploit the invention. With some government support the idea was proved to work, but the cost of electricity production was greater than that of current methods. No further support was forthcoming, and the company was wound up in 1982. This did not stop Cockerell thinking of other means of solving the problem, and just before his death he had an idea for creating energy by electronic means.

Cockerell held very strong views on a variety of subjects and wrote many letters to the press and professional institutions. He was particularly concerned with the comparatively low status of engineers in society, and that the country's educational system produced half-educated people. He believed that education at all levels should concern itself with the formation of character; he opposed early specialization at schools and advocated broader courses at universities—science courses to include art subjects and vice versa, thereby producing 'whole men' instead of 'half-educated people'. His recreations included the visual arts, photography, gardening, fishing, sailing, shooting, tennis, motorcycling, chess, music, antiquities, and antiques. In all these pursuits he was very knowledgeable. His upbringing served to make him very thoughtful and generous with his time and expertise to family, friends, and colleagues, with no tendency for self-aggrandizement. As a result, people who knew him became devoted to him for the rest of his life. He gave much of his time to encouraging engineering in schools, clubs, and colleges, particularly in the construction of small hovercraft.

Cockerell could not accept the concept of God and life after death in the accepted sense, believing that the good or bad effect we have on all our friends and relatives is the form in which we live after death. He believed that Christianity should be concerned with uplifting teachings rather than with established dogma. He died on 1 June 1999 in Sutton Manor Nursing Home, Sutton Scotney, Hampshire, a few days before his eighty-ninth birthday. He left behind not only a worldwide industry exploiting his basic inventions, but an example of how to live our lives. The private family funeral was followed by a memorial service on 12 July 1999 at the abbey church of the Blessed Virgin and Holy Child at Beaulieu. Edwin Gifford, a close friend, spoke for all who knew him when he said at the service, 'Sir Christopher was an original thinker of great humanity who will be remembered with admiration and deep affection.' He was survived by his two daughters, Anne and Frances.


  • R. L. Wheeler, Memoirs FRS, 47 (2001), 67–89
  • The Times (3 June 1999)
  • Daily Telegraph (3 June 1999)
  • The Guardian (4 June 1999)
  • The Independent (4 June 1999)
  • The Scotsman (4 June 1999)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004) [F. K. Airy, John Rapson, Hovercraft Society]
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • priv. coll.
  • Hovercraft Museum Trust, Lee-on-Solent, Hampshire
  • Sci. Mus., corresp. and papers


  • priv. coll.


  • priv. coll.


  • J. Kingsford, pencil drawing, 1917/18, priv. coll.
  • E. Vulliamy, pencil drawing, 1917, priv. coll.
  • D. W. Hawksley, watercolour drawing, 1932, priv. coll.
  • photograph, 1959, repro. in Daily Telegraph
  • photograph, 1979, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1983, repro. in The Times
  • E. Sargeant, oils, 1985, NPG
  • F. K. Kingsford, oils (as a boy), priv. coll.
  • F. K. Kingsford, pencil drawings (as a boy), priv. coll.
  • photograph, repro. in The Guardian
  • photograph, repro. in The Independent
  • photograph, repro. in The Scotsman
  • photographs, priv. coll.
Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society