Seldom do we seen such a dramatic shift away from one established technology with the arrival of a competing and, often, better new technology or solution – this is described by the cruelly true word of “obsolesce”.
A classic example is the Kodiak 35mm film or the Polaroid camera – see our earlier piece here on the Polaroid Camera – when confronted with the dawn of mass digital photography and the ever increasing pixels of the cameras incorporated into mobile phones demand for these former market leaders collapsed.
The powered or manual ribbon typewriter was rendered redundant by the arrival its victor, the word processor/computer.
An equally dramatic commercial market shift can be seen in the impact that the opening of the Channel Tunnel, in May 1994 and the commencing of its passenger services in November 1994, had on the transport links typified by ferry boats and today’s iconic design, The Hovercraft.
On many occasions from the mid 1970’s to late 1980’s I used the Hovercraft services that ploughed between the Kent coasts and Northern France. Akin to flying, rising up then skuttling across the waves on its air inflated “skirt”, the ride was fabulous – if a little noisy – for the sea-sick prone, like me, who could resemble an emerald before a traditional ferry boat had left the harbour!
Not entirely without predecessors, the Hovercraft is regarded as a British invention of the late 1950’s when mechanical engineer Christopher Cockerell’s and his colleagues developed an annular ring of air for maintaining the cushion and providing lift under the vehicle, combined with a successful “skirt”, resulted in the first practical vehicular use of the concept.
Initially, until no military use was shown, Cockerell’s work and design were Classified. However, it was later Declassified and in 1958 Cockerell obtained funding for a full scale model. Launching in June 1959, it crossed the English Channel on 25 July 1959.
By 1968 a car and passenger cross-channel ferry service was offered by Hoverlloyd from the Kent coast to Calais and Boulogne (France) and, later, by Seaspeed – a joint venture with British Rail and the French equivalent SNCF. In 1981 the two businesses merged to become “Hoverspeed” – whose majestic craft is our featured image.
The Hoverspeed services ceased in 2000 and were replaced by Seacat catamarans until 2005. The reason, often cited for their closure was the impact of the opening of the Channel Tunnel.
I’d also suggest the routes suffered from a decline in so-called “Booze Cruises”, when us Brits, would fill up our cars with lowly taxed beers, wines and spirits in Northern France.
Although the Hovercraft continues to enjoy a role, both in the military and civilian services around the world, and production still taking place on the Isle of White – the home of its design and testing – perhaps like Concorde – see our earlier post here – Concorde by Dominic Baker in years to come and market forces identify demand there will be a revival in the fortunes of the Cross Channel Hovercraft services, I would be a keen supporter.