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British Industrial History

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Christopher Sydney Cockerell

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Christopher Sydney Cockerell (1910–1999), electronic and mechanical engineer

1910 Born in Cambridge, son of Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, and his wife, Florence Kate nee Kingsford.

Educated at home and at various schools before studying at Cambridge. He spent much of his spare time overhauling motor bikes, which he raced, winning several cups.

Graduated with an engineering degree.

Employed for two years at W. H. Allen and Sons of Bedford, engineers, working as a pupil engineer.

1934 he returned to Cambridge to research radio and electronics.

Then joined the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co at the Writtle site, near Chelmsford. 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.

Only seven months after he had joined Marconi, the company filed his first patent.

1937 he was promoted head of aircraft research and development.

1937 Married Margaret Elinor Belsham (1913–1996).

Designed a radio direction finder for the new liner Mauretania.

1939 Responded rapidly to a request for new radio communication and navigation equipment for the RAF. He and his team produce a prototype in only eleven weeks. By June 1940 production equipment was being installed in bombers. E. K. Cole was contracted to assist Marconi with their production. During the course of the war some 120,000 R1155 receiver units and 55,000 T1154 transmitter units were produced. Cockerell regarded this equipment as the most important work of his career. Marconi offered Cockerell promotion in 1940 but he refused to leave his team, whom he regarded as of equal importance.

Then they developed 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 data from various sources, such as compass readings.

Provided the Fleet Air Arm with a radio beacon and receiver to enable pilots to return safely to their aircraft-carriers.

Shortly before D-day Cockerell and his team produced equipment to locate German radar stations on the coast of France. The equipment, codenamed Bagful, 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.

1948 Cockerell moved to the Marconi research laboratories at Great Baddow.

By November 1950 Cockerell and his team had achieved 36 patents.

Not wanting more administrative work, he declined promotion and resigned on 8 August 1951.

He also owned Ripplecraft Ltd at Oulton Broad, where he designed motor boats, all of which embodied new ideas. He believed that the power required by motor boats could be significantly reduced, particularly by introducing air between the hull and the water.

1955 He patented the amphibious hovercraft.

After searching for sponsors, Saunders-Roe agreed to assess the potential of the hovercraft, supported by the Ministry of Supply.

1958 National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) agreed to support the development.

1959 NRDC formed a wholly-owned subsidiary called Hovercraft Development Ltd (HDL).

1959 The Saunders-Roe manned model, SRN1, was shown to the press. Trials were successful and on 25 July the craft crossed the English Channel.

Many companies took licences to build hovercraft. The demand for financial support led the NRDC to encourage the United Kingdom companies to merge their hovercraft interests into a single company but Cockerell was opposed to this because it would significantly reduce competition in development.

1964 Cockerell, Edwin Gifford and Don Robertson, a pilot, formed Hovertransport Ltd to operate a large passenger/car ferry.

1966 Cockerell resigned as director of HDL and NRDC dismissed him from the executive position of chief engineer of HDL.

The British government also took a considerable interest in the military potential of hovercraft.

1966 Appointed CBE

1967 Elected a fellow of the Royal Society

1969 Knighted in 1969.

1972 He finally received compensation of £150,000 for the loss of his shareholding in HDL.

1974 Took out three provisional patents on the principle of extracting energy from waves.

Cockerell filed a total of 98 patents in his lifetime

1999 He died at Sutton Scotney, Hants.

See Also

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Sources of Information

  • Biography, ODNB