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.

Hand-Turned Dobbies

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 to appear.

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.

Image: Bicycle Roundabout.
Bicycle Roundabout, or Velocipede.

Steam-Powered Roundabouts

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 in 1863.

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 more understandable.

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.

Image: Steam Roundabout.
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 of protection.

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.

Image: Sea on Land

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.

Image: Gallopers
Gallopers in the past...

Image: Gallopers
... still popular today.

Other Rides

Steam Yachts

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.

Image: Steam Yachts
Classic Steam Yachts.

Please see here for our photographic feature on a Steam Yachts build-up.

Switchback Rides

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.

Image: Switchback
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.

Image: Switchback Gallopers
Switchback Gallopers.

Tunnel Railways

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.

Image: Tunnel Railway
Tunnel Railway.

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.

Image: Razzle Dazle
Razzle Dazzle.

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.

Image: Pigs and Balloons
Pigs and Balloons before its sale to Ireland.

Electric Rides

Scenic Railways

Photo: Enoch Farrar's Scenic Ride, 1st World War
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 click here.

Picture: Thurston Family Advertising Card, 1st World War.
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.

Image: Chairoplanes
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.

Image: Caterpillar
A thriller for all - The Caterpillar.

Big Wheels

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.

Image: Wheel
The Giant Wheel at Earls Court - a pre-cursor to the London Eye?

Cake Walks

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.

Image: Cake Walk
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.

Image: Dodgems
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.

Image: Ark
A classic preserved Coronation Ark.

Image: Easy Rider
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.

Image: Mont Blanc
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.

Image: Moonrocket
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.

Image: Meteorite
Gravitational extremes on the Meteorite.

Image: Miami
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.