The inflatable boat? The first was “wearable” as a coat….


Give or treat yourself to a subscription to Boats in Motion print + digital and for only 39 euros a year you get the magazine at home plus read it on your PC, smartphone and tablet. With a sea of advantages.

We owe to the ingenious idea of a British naval lieutenant the first practical realization, in the modern era, of what has become our dinghy of today.

inflatable boat
The “knapsack” version of the rubberized Mackintossh canvas dinghy made by Peter Halkett in the 1840s

In our account of what inflatables and its forerunners are and where they came from, in the previous article we went back to its earliest origins, of which we have traces as far back as the days of the ancient Sumerian kingdom. Today we enter the modern era instead, with a little background on the name.

Now the most common definition is actually an Englishification: RIB, Rigid Inflatable Boat, a shorter form of the more correct RHIB, Rigid H ull Inflatable Boat; in the past the most common was “canotto,” which was nothing more than the Italian version of the French “canot pneumatic.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, the term dinghy (another word that, stopping for a second to think about it, makes one smile a bit) is still a child of English: “rubberdinghy.”

From the New Zealand Chronicle, December 20, 1851: “A new boat invented by Navy Lt. Halkett.”

Peter Halckett and the “dinghy coat”

It was the military that marked the history of the “dinghy,” both at the origins of its contemporary history and then at the time of its first large-scale deployment. It all started with the ingenious idea of Peter Halkett, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, who in the 1840s thought of a kind of cape/rubber.

It was a small boat made of Mackintosh cloth. (itself invented in 1823 by Charles Macintosh, a Scottish chemist, to make a new form of waterproof clothing using rubber and liquefied tar to join the pieces of fabric together) that was, however, rubberized-the process is explained later-and that when deflated could be rested on the shoulders, and then be inflated to allow small crossings in inland waters.

The use was evidently for exploration, for military vanguards to venture into difficult terrain. Included is an oar also used as an appopting stick and an umbrella/sail (as described in the article above).

Only two of Lt. Halkett’s boats remain, one from the Hudson Bay Company at the Manitoba Museum (pictured) and one from Orkney explorer John Rae.

Vulcanization, it all starts from here….

Halkett’s idea took shape as technology evolved in the field of waterproofing. The “rubberizing” it adopts for its creation was a child of the vulcanization of natural rubber: in 1838 Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock (inventors and entrepreneurs) discovered that if you removed its sulfur and then heated it it retained its elasticity. An idea that then evidently over time found a plethora of applications, far beyond nautical ones.

Halkett’s idea was very ingenious (he even made a second version to put in a backpack and use as a waterproof blanket once deflated) but his superiors did not like it much , and the Admiralty decided not to invest attention and resources in his invention. Those who liked it, however, were a number of American and Canadian explorers of the time, first and foremost John Franklin, who used it for his ill-fated Arctic expedition of 1845 (where he and 128 other sailors lost their lives).

Toward the “real” inflatable boat

The process had started, however, and from 1850 onward, the Thomas Hancock Company in Europe and Goodyear on the other side of the ocean carried out numerous expressions, almost all q military purposes to make pontoons or small transportable boats. The next step in the development of inflatable boats was at the turn of the war, brought about by Reginald Foster Dagnall, an English designer who founded his RFD, and by the French Zodiac Marine & Pool.

They were the first signs of the birth of modern inflatable boats, and we will discuss them in detail in the next article on the history of “dinghies.”

by Luca Sordelli
(Lecturer in Yacht Design, History of Contemporary Yachting, IED Turin).



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you already a subscriber?

Sign up for our Newsletter

Join the Sailing Newspaper Club

Powerboats, its stories, from small open to motoryachts. Sign up now for our free newsletter and receive the best news selected by the editorial staff each week. Enter your email below, agree to the Privacy Policy and click the “sign me up” button.

Once you click on the button below check your mailbox



You may also be interested in.

Prestige F5

First impressions of the Prestige F5

Of course, now that there are also multihulls in the range, but Prestige does not forget its roots: motoryachts. Here, then, comes the new Prestige F5, a model expected to debut as early as 2024, at the Cannes Yachting Festival