Fairground Rides - A Chronological Development
David Braithwaite's landmark book "Fairground Architecture"
describes the disciplines of design and mechanisation as being turned
on their heads when applied to the fairground world. The industrial and
technological revolutions forced great changes and re-organisation of
the working classes, and a need for entertainment emerged concurrently
with the exuberance of technological conquest experienced by the designers
and engineers of the time. These forces and demands came together on the
fairground to create a dizzying vortex of change, development, ingenuity
and showmanship, as the concept of the fairground ride became established
from a simple dream to build the revolving 'carousel' to the white-knuckle
extremities of present times.
Evidence is difficult to find on the early development
of the roundabout. Simple dobby sets existed in the early nineteenth century.
In "Seventy Years a Showman" Lord George Sanger describes how
his father manufactured his own dobbies early in his career. Crude in
construction, the horses:
were enlarged examples of the rough penny toys .. their
legs were simply round sticks. Their bodies were lumps of deal rounded
on one side. Their head were roughly cut from half-inch deal boards, and
inserted in a groove in their bodies, while the tails and manes were made
of strips of rabbit-skin.
Already the gaudy paintwork of the fairground was beginning
Like many roundabouts at the time, Sanger's horses were
turned by children who, being unable to afford the ha'penny fare, pushed
round their luckier companions, being later rewarded for their efforts
with a free ride. A report from Hull Fair in the 1840s introduces Johnson,
a tough, foul-mouthed showman who whipped his young workers rather more
frequently than he rewarded them. He and his wife are singled out as a
pair of universal favourites, notwithstanding their addiction to vituperation
and unsavoury expletives, although it may be surprising that despite his
apparent cruelty towards his juvenile helpers he was never short of volunteers.
Sometimes the roundabouts were pulled by ponies, employed
in much the same way as a horse would turn a gin at a mine or on a farm.
But as with both industry and agriculture, steam replaced muscle power,
although much later than elsewhere.
An interesting development was the bicycle-powered roundabout,
commonly known as Velocipede.
Bicycle Roundabout, or Velocipede.
Not until 1861 do we find documentary evidence of a
steam-driven merry-go-round. According to Thomas Hurst, the eminent Lancashire
roundabout proprietor, it was Thomas Bradshaw who first opened such a
device on the old Pot Market in Bolton on New Year's Day in 1861. The
boiler for the engine was constructed at Pollit's Boiler Yard in Lever
Street, Bolton, while the engine was the work of Messrs Rogerson and Brimelow
of Deansgate. Bradshaw made the horses himself, and patented his idea
It is quite likely that it was Bradshaw's machine which
visited the Midsummer Fair in Halifax. It was the shrill whistle of the
steam giant which caught the attention of the reporter from the Halifax
Courier in 1863. He described a:
roundabout of huge proportions, driven by a steam engine
which whirled around with such impetuousity, that the wonder is the daring
riders are not shot off like cannon- ball, and driven half into the middle
of next month.
It seems an unlikely and rather exaggerated account
of an early steam merry-go-round, but when one takes into account the
concern shown by gentlemen of the medical profession about the dangers
of travelling at speeds of over 30 mph on the railways, it is perhaps
Concern was indeed raised by a local resident worried
by the risk of explosion. It endangers the lives of scores of children,
he claimed, considering the state of pressure at which it is worked. His
anxiety was obviously not shared by all for in 1865 another innovator,
Sidney Soames, demonstrated his version of the steam roundabout at Aylsham
Fair. The same year the best known of all fairground engineers, Frederick
Savage of King's Lynn, constructed his first steam-driven ride.
Uriah Cheeseman took delivery of a set of steam Velocipedes
or Bicycles in 1865. A Report in the Lynn News suggests that this ride
was present at King's Lynn Mart in 1866, and at Oxford St Giles later
that year. The evidence suggests that this was Savage's first such ride.
Unfortunately the company's records for the early years are incomplete,
and it would appear that it was not until 1868 that another steam roundabout
was built at King's Lynn. This time it was a set of steam Dobby horses
which were built for George Twigdon, an East Midland traveller who already
operated a Dobby set.
Steam Roundabout on the road
A decade later Savages were regularly producing Velocopides
and Dobbies for travelling showmen. The involvement of William Sanger
led to the title of "Steam Circus" being adopted. The impact
of the steam machine on the development of the riding machine was profound.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close numerous patents were taken
out for new ideas and designs. Sometimes it was the roundabout proprietors
themselves who tried out out new ideas; Abraham Waddington of Yorkshire
was just one of the early pioneers who, in 1870, considered his idea worthy
The partnership of Frederick Savage and William Sanger
gave birth to another novelty ride in 1880 when they launched the Sea
on Land. Replicas of seafaring vessels, complete in later designs with
sails and rigging, were pitched and tossed by mechanisms beneath their
hulls, and often named after liners of the day. The earliest versions
also incorporated another new idea: the traction centre engine. This combined
the haulage engine with the central drive. Savages built some of these,
but John and Henry Mclaren of Leeds also supplied examples.
During the 1880s several manufacturers competed to try
to make the 'still' Dobby Horses gallop. In 1885 Savages built their first
Platform Gallopers for John Murphy from Tyneside. The same year Messrs
Reynolds and King designed the overhead crank system which was improved
upon the following year by Tidmans of Norwich. By the end of the century
crank-action Gallopers were being supplied by several British engineers,
and as a ride were to prove popular for decades to come.
Gallopers in the past...
... still popular today.
If the roundabout could be mechanised, so could the
swing. A patent taken out in 1888 introduced the Steam Yachts. William
Cartwright of Bromwich first succeeded in building a set using upright
cylinders. Savages also began building Steam Yachts, using Cartwright's
improved patent of 1894. Their first set was built for John Collins. The
Yachts were often given the names of the latest liners: Lusitania and
Mauretania, Cymric and Celtic, although Olympia and Titanic proved short
lived names on John Collins set.
Classic Steam Yachts.
Please see here
for our photographic feature on a Steam Yachts build-up.
Savages designed and constructed the first Switchback
in 1888. Cannabalising an older ride, their first example was delivered
to George Aspland of Boston. The idea proved popular and within a matter
of months several important travelling roundabout proprietors, including
Greens, Baileys, Studts and Murphys had similar machines. The earliest
examples featured only plain toast-rack cars, but once the imagination
of the wood-carvers was encouraged these gave way to more elaborate chariots.
In 1894 the idea of the Venetian Gondola was introduced by Pat Collins
of Walsall. He boasted in 1899 that his were a faithful reproduction of
the Gondolas used by the Doges of Venice their grand processsion as immortalised
by Shakespeare and Byron. These Switchback rides, along with their electrified
counterparts the Scenic Railway, were a highpoint of early fairground
art and aesthetics, indicating the way forward in reaching for decorative
benchmarks. Italian designers and craftsmen were imported at the showmen's
expense, and a lavish centre organ became a standard of exuberance.
The Rodeo Switchback still survives.
It was John Green's brother, George, who helped to develop
the Switchback Galloper in 1889. Virtually a cross between a Switchback
and a Platform Galloper, it was built by Savages, but never in large numbers.
Despite this an example was travelled in Scotland by the Wilmots, and
the ride continued to attend fairs north of the border until the 1930s.
If the real Channel Tunnel had been opened in 1994,
then it was a century earlier that the journey was being simulated on
fairgrounds in Britain. By 1895 three firms were building Tunnel Railways
for roundabout proprietors; Savage built examples were travelled by Pat
Collins of Walsall, George Thomas Tuby of Doncaster and William Davis
of Stoke on Trent. John Fowler and Thomas Green, both engineering firms
from Leeds, also built such rides.
Novelty is always important in attracting customers;
if a trip through the Channel Tunnel, complete with smoke and steam did
not appeal, then a ride on Razzle Dazzle might. Sitting on seats on a
circular platform, it dipped from side to side as it rotated. As early
as 1893 Savages held a patent for the machine, but later examples built
in Hartlepool by the Howcroft Carriage and Waggon Works proved superior.
Savages, Tidmans and Walkers continued to supply steam
driven rides until the outbreak of the Great War. Some old ideas were
sometimes brought back again in slightly different forms. Pat Collins
took delivery of a Velocopide as late as 1896 and Reuben Holdsworths's
Pigs and Balloons built in 1908, were essentially a Platform Galloper
of the 1885 patent; the main difference was the counter-rotating top.
Pigs and Balloons before its sale to Ireland.
Enoch Farrar's Scenic Ride, 1st World War
The most important development prior to the First World
War was the Scenic Railway. Electricity now drove the massive motor cars,
not a steam centre engine. Enoch Farrar of Yorkshire took delivery of
the first in 1910. He claimed it to be the most important invention in
electrical science as applied to amusements ever introduced to a discriminating
public, and that he was offering journeys in real motor cars ... travelling
at 60 mph ... over mountains and valleys through beautiful Alpine Scenery.
Many fairs were cancelled during the war, and few new
rides built. Under blackout conditions, whilst the threat of Zeppelin
raids existed, some fairs continued. When peace did finally come in 1918,
Britain too suffered from the economic scourge which swept Europe: inflation.
This made new roundabouts expensive investments. It is noticeable how
fewer rides were being built by firms like Savages after the war. A few
sets of Gallopers, Steam Yachts and Scenic Railways were ordered. Orton
Sons and Spooner, of Burton upon Trent, built more Scenic Railways, featuring
new themes, such as Dragons, Peacocks, Whales and Dolphins. Their final
Scenic Railway was built in 1925 for William Davis of Stoke on Trent.
A recent publication charts the history of the Scenic
Railway - for details of this, and an accompanying photo gallery, please
Thurston Family Advertising Card, 1st World War.
Having made peace with Germany, it was from here as
well as America that many of the new rides of the 1920s were to come from.
Possibly the precursor of modern thrill rides was the "The Whip"
built in the United States by W.F. Mangels Co of Coney Island. A few examples
found their way to Britain, but much more numerous in the early days were
Chair-o- Planes. Although a small number of these were built in this country,
most of them were imported from Germany where they were built by several
companies, including Bothmann of Gotha, Saxony. Tippler White, a Yorkshire
showman, used to visit Germany, and load sets of Chairs into living waggons
and import them into Britain.
Chairoplanes remain popular on the old time fairground.
Another novelty introduced into Britain in the early
1920s was the Caterpillar. After a season in a permanent park, the first
example was taken over by the Green Brothers, who travelled no less than
four of these rides at one time or another. Most Caterpillars were built
either on the continent or in America, but a few did begin life in Britain.
Today they are restricted almost exclusively to parks; sadly Green's original
machine was broken up in Morecambe as late as the 1980s.
A thriller for all - The Caterpillar.
The Big Wheel has been in existence as long as any swings
or roundabouts, and has remained unchanged in basic design principles.
Great Wheels were built for early exhibitions such as Earls Court (1894)
with machines such as this capable of carrying 1,200 passengers within
its 40 carriages. Production of travelling Big Wheels began between the
wars, with initially 16 car machines opening, followed by a more portable
12 car version. The recent trend has been for Giant Wheels once again,
with the London Eye proving a fine example of a classic idea. European
manufacturers are now capable of building of travelling Giant Wheels for
those showmen willing to invest in the transport and necessary hard work.
The Giant Wheel at Earls Court - a pre-cursor to the London Eye?
The Cake Walk emerged around 1909 - named after a fast
and frenetic dance - and the advertising of this machine as 'Captiviating',
'Invigorating', 'Rejuvinating' and a 'Progressive British Sport' captured
the spirit of the times. The mechanism consisted of undulating bridges
and gangways driven by cranks, with the belt drive often connected to
the organ such that a speed up of the music meant a speed up of the ride
and a speed up of the riders 'dancing'. This made for good spectacle -
and showman quickly learnt that a ride that makes a good viewing spectacle
will take better money.
All aboard the Cake Walk.
In 1928 one of the best known of all modern fairground
rides was introduced into Britain by Messrs Lusse Brothers. The Dodgem
had been in existence for a number of years abroad, but their popularity
in Britain was soon established, with a number of British firms, including
Orton and Spooner, Robert Lakin, Lang Wheels and Rytecraft building tracks.
Savages were soon disappearing from the market now, although their last
ride was a set of Dodgems built for London showman Patsy North.
The origins of the Dodgem track is difficult to trace
with various claims to be first, and a multitude of patents in existence,
though the crux seems to be the actual development of the Dodgem as we
know it - a controllable 'bumper car' and electrical pick-up to the roof
'nets'. The Pleasure Beach at Blackpool had a 'Dodgem type' machine in
1913 called the Witching Waves whereby motion was provided by a complex
arrangement of tilting floor panels. It is said that the ride was replaced
in 1921 by the arrival of the Dodgems, introduced and patented by concessionaire
George Tonner. Paul Braithwaite's index of patents has various entries
for Dodgems, and the first patent is simply a 'Dodgem system' in 1921,
though how this resembles a modern day machine is not established. The
next patents are in 1923 (Dodgem type rocking horse and Bumper cars on
dished track), and a Lusse Brothers patent also in 1923 simply called
'Bumper Car'. Lusse Brothers provide further patents in the next few years
for drive mechanism and steering, so it is clear that they are developing
the DODGEM CAR, however it is unclear whether the famous electrical pick-up
via pole is in operation. There then follows three patents in 1928 from
different companies (including Lusse again) for Dodgem electrical aparatus,
Dodgem Car power unit and Dodgem Car improved bumper. Certainly in this
latter period Lusse perfected the Dodgem car as a microcosmic motor car,
with futuristic designs appearing up until recent times.
Disorder and delight on the Dodgems.
Roundabouts and the Post-1930s Surge for Speed
It was again Bothmanns who were to introduce what was
to become possibly the most popular of all roundabouts of the inter-war
years. The first German Noah's Ark was opened at Mitcham in 1930 by William
Wilson. Almost immediately both Orton and Spooner and Robert Lakin began
to build their own versions. Although both firms tried different constructions,
it was the various themes adopted which are best remembered: the early
Noah's Ark survived into the mid-1930s when Lakin introduced their famous
Ben Hur rides. Horses and Chariots were now featured on the platforms,
but Edwin Hall's scenes of the Circus Maximus in Rome, made famous by
the 1925 film, were breath-taking. Later horses gave way to Motor Cycles,
and so the Speedway theme was introduced. Even royalty was celebrated
and a number of Coronation Speedways were built in 1937.
A classic preserved Coronation Ark.
1970s Easy Rider influence - an example of reinvention.
Swirls, Waltzers, Mont Blancs and
Loch Ness Monsters...
More ideas were brought over from both France and Germany
in the late 1920s and the early 1930s. The Skid or Swirl, a close derivative
of the Whip, but circular in construction, was built by Lakins, using
additional features suggested by Charles Thurston, who also worked in
close liaison with Lakins in building the first Waltzer in 1933. The Mont
Blanc, originally brought from France, was also built by Lakins, who later
changed its theme and called it the Airways.
The Mont Blanc - a short lived thrill ride.
Fresh interest in subterranean movements in Loch Ness
in 1935 gave rise to another new ride in 1935. Both Lang Wheels and Lakins
built rides based on the Loch Ness Monster theme, but they did not prove
popular. It did however, give the idea for another new ride which came
in just before the outbreak of war: the Autodrome. Speed was now the essence
of new rides. The old sedate pace set by Gallopers and Switchbacks were
no longer vogue. The epitome of the new fast thrill ride of the 1930s
was the Moonrocket. The first of these rides was imported by Joseph Schipper
for John Collins, but the Lakin examples were more popular. The illusion
of speed was increased by having the whole centre dome, including a figure
of Popeye astride a small rocket, rotate the opposite way to the cars.
Thriller of the 30s - Moonrocket.
The Second World War and After
The development of fairground rides after the Second
World war was fast and frenetic. Many of these machines are covered in
our section on modern rides.
Just before the war a few new American novelty rides
found their way to Britain. The Octopus and
the Dive Bomber, built by the Eyerly Company,
were functional and totally seemingly devoid of the flamboyant decoration
synonymous with the British Fairground, however showmen quickly adopted
these rides to give them unique identities to indicate the thrills (and
frights) on offer. Britain added its own ideas, and attractions with names
such as the Hurricane Jets, Twists,
Satellites and Meteorites
were soon appearing on the fair. Slowly, however it was the influence
of the German and Italian builders who put the decorative skills of the
British Fairground artists back to use. The Superbob,
Matterhorn, Pirate Boat and the Break Dance,
all have "back-flashes" which give the ride a theme. Sometimes
these are inspired by films, such as Ghostbusters, or by popular music,
such as Thriller. The final part of this re-birth in fairground art came
with the introduction of the Miami Trip whereby
the UK established itself as heving to most dynamic and capable artists.
Gravitational extremes on the Meteorite.
Popular throughout the 1990s - The Miami Trip.
Competition in the 1990s still encourages showmen to
invest in new rides, but increasingly this demand is being met by foreign
manufacturers. Top Spins, Orbiters and Quasars have been built in Britain,
as was Wilson's Super Bowl, but 'big-hitting' rides increasingly come
from Dutch and Italian manufacturers. The development of highly advanced
spinning and looping rides is still underway,
and looks set to continue long into the 21st Century.