Technology and Thrill
by Ian Trowell, National Fairground Archive
Over the past few decades the look of the fairground has become increasingly synonymous with technological change, to the point that rides start to resemble expressions of pure technology (mechanical, robotic, synthesised, etc). With this the actual feel of the fairground, the stimulus from the totality of aesthetics, also becomes a feeling of technology rather than predominantly expressions of art forms (carving, painting) or replicated popular culture (music and films). This phenomenon is now discussed.
"the battle for aerial supremecy" - Hull Fair is the peak of technological expression.
The modern fair is often described as a "theatre of machines", and this has been the case since the turn of the last century when the preponderance of shows was matched by the development and capability of (first) steam rides and (second) electrically driven rides. The layout of the fairground became fixed, the dynamics, contours and relationships of the elements working together to create a vibrant and specific whole. Everything combined to transmit and enclose an arena of pure thrill and excitement - alongside the discernible elements that can be classed as 'art' (painting etc) we have the lights, sounds, structure, movement and 'fabric' of the fair.
We need to understand that the overt expression of technology is also an aesthetic, and starts to define the look and feel of something that previously utilised technology to define a distinct look and feel. A parallel example would be in the development of music in the 70s with the rapid evolution of studio technology - whereas talented musicians from various disciplines would be able to utilise studio technologies to realise their ideas and sonic expressions, later musicians (in scenes such as prog-rock and early electronica) would approach the studio as the primary instrument in itself and let the studio dictate the final work. To a lesser extent this also occurred in some films, such as the work of horror director David Cronenburg who compressed burgeoning expressions of 'up to date' modernisms into all of his films, making the films themselves quickly date in a strange and uncomfortable way. The rapid advance, in terms of capability and orientation, of fairground technology started to define the overriding sensory impact of the fair.
Bleak, imposing and quite obviously a high-tech experience - the Super Star.
The evolution of fairground rides can be heavily simplified into broad strata. The successful completion of the roundabout at the end of the Victorian period brought to bear the defining shape on the fairground. Technology and craft were harnessed in unison to furnish and develop the roundabout, and these buttressed the simulative and aspirational impetus of the fairground roundabout. The roundabout shifted from galloping horses, to motor cars, to train rides, with the competitive element of the showmen and the craft of the artist / carver, allowing the movement to flourish.
The life-cycle of the roundabout had some changes that would pre-empt a move towards a technological imperative. John Walter Waddington added motor cars to his Switchback in the 1910s, replacing the ornate gondolas and (to some historians) signalled an intention to end the sedate period. However the restrictions of the roundabout in of itself, in terms of its limited movements, meant that a quick return followed to the strange, out-of-place, carved scenic rides featuring mythical sea monsters - considered as a return to the "dream fabric" of the fairground.
Roundabouts began to kick against the limitations of their expressiveness locked into the simplicities of the movement and mechanism. They got faster and more boisterous, and by the 1930s were kitted with motor bikes to reflect the new cultural regimes of speed and intensity. The simple task of 'simple simulation' (horses and other such rural pursuits) became the chase for a new simulation of thrill, and simulated thrill of course becomes a thrill in its own right: a fast ride on a simulated motor bike is still a fast and thrilling experience even if it isn't a real motor bike. It was in this period, strangely still with roundabouts, that the fairground became infatuated with thrill.
New movements achieved through technological thinking - the Twist.
The satisfaction of providing thrill on the fairground was provided by technology, but now the fairground ride enjoyed a different relationship to technology - technology did not just provide the answers to simple problems (mimic the gallop of a rural horse), technology (as in the 'culture of technology' in society) also set the targets and scope of the problems to be resolved. Technology outside of the fair was making life faster, more intense and more exciting, and the fairground used this technology to create simulations of these other, manifold expressions of technology. The Twist ride, developed at the start of the 1960s, is actually a function of the technology of attainable movement, even though it was initially wrapped up in a cultural (dance music) concept. The Twist ride started the modern generation of rides that explored the limits of achievable movement, the limits of combining achievable movements, the limits of combining achievable movements at increasing speeds and increasing heights.
The Terminator - life imitating art imitating technology - the purest expression of robotics.
By the start of the 1980s rides were stripped down, metallic, bristling with lights and plastic, and spoke only of their enthralling and alluring technology. Like the music studio, technology was now driving the 'meaning' of the fairground ride, and not simply providing an answer to a simple problem. Of course, the current era sees technological problems and challenges in advance of them occurring as solutions, as rides are developed and then within a few months questions are asked: "What if it spun on another axis? What if it went all the way over?". This technological imperative permeates all areas of our understanding of fairground aesthetics - from the design and 'fabric' of the rides themselves - they need to look like expressions of technology, to overall impact and impetus of the fairground whole.
Theme park structure and machinery is at the forefront of thrill - its permanence allowing new size and extremities to be realised.