We think of hovercraft as a modern conveyance. After all, any vision of the future usually includes hovercraft or flying cars along with all the other things we imagine in the future. So when do you think the hovercraft first appeared? The 1960s? The 1950s? Maybe it was a World War II development from the 1940s? Turns out, a human-powered hovercraft was dreamed up (but not built) in 1716 by [Emanuel Swedenborg]. You can see a sketch from his notebook below. OK, that’s not fair, though. Imagining it and building one are two different things.
[Swedenborg] realized a human couldn’t keep up the work to put his craft on an air cushion for any length of time. Throughout the 1800s, though, engineers kept thinking about the problem. Around 1870, [Sir John Thornycroft] built several test models of ship’s hulls that could trap air to reduce drag — an idea called air lubrication, that had been kicked around since 1865. However, with no practical internal combustion engine to power it, [Thornycroft’s] patents didn’t come to much. In America, around 1876 [John Ward] proposed a lightweight platform using rotary fans for lift but used wheels to get forward motion. Others built on the idea, but they still lacked the engines to make it completely practical.
But even 1940 is way too late for a working hovercraft. [Dagobert Müller] managed that in 1915. With five engines, the craft was like a wing that generated lift in motion. It was a warship with weapons and a top speed of around 32 knots, although it never saw actual combat. Because of its physical limitations it could only operate over water, unlike more modern craft.