Orbiter

Quick Facts

Manufacturer(s): Woolls, Norson Power, Thurston
Debut year: 1976
First UK produced: 1976
Last UK produced: current
Total UK number: 28
Summary: Ground-breaking UK invention showing the first innovative use of hydraulics. 6 arms with 3 cars follow a Twist style rotating motion - the centre lifts and the arms pivot outwards. Evolved throughout the 1990s to include more inverted possibilities.

In the late summer of 1976 a new ride appeared at Margate's Dreamland Amusement Park that was to change the shape of fairground technology. Former traveller Henry Smith invested in the blueprints and enthusiasm that had been advertised by Richard Woolls in the Worlds Fair, and became the first owner of the Orbiter. The project had been instigated by a joke between Woolls and his brother-in-law Bob Nichols, who constantly pulled his leg about the amount of time Woolls spent repairing machinery. The suggestion that he create his own project set the mind working of the former showman who had plenty of experience in heavy industrial engineering, and the resulting prototype grabbed the attention of both showmen and the riding public across the world. Woolls worked for two years on the first production model, with an intention to use emerging technologies to shape something wholly new rather than just becoming part of the slowly evolving movement to incorporate new techniques in hydraulic engineering into existing ride types.

Photo: Smith's machine at Stratford, 1977.
Smith's machine - OB1 - at Stratford, 1977.

Photo: Mellors' Orbiter, 1980s.
In full flight with Mellors.

The trend in the late 70s was for US imported novelty rides such as Rock-o-planes, whilst scores of gently revolving Lifting Paratroopers and Trabants were satisfying what many people thought were the thrill capacities of the majority of the fairground public. The Orbiter shattered this calm with an explosion of light, speed and movement – the space-age had arrived on the fairground. Commentators remarked on the silence of the operation, with Woolls revealing that the project had picked up various nicknames such as Whispering Giant and Ghost due to its ultra-quiet hydraulic mechanism and intense riding pattern. Indeed, the riding pattern had many people struggling for words or comparisons, with the travelling debut of Smith's Orbiter (Stratford Mop, 1977) provoking this response from World's Fair reporter Rod Spooner ; best described as a combination of Octopus and Jets with a little bit of the Twist thrown in for good measure. The lessees of the fair, Bob Wilson and Sons, were themselves debuting with their Scat and they could only have been hugely impressed with the performance of the Orbiter. It would only be a couple of years before Wilsons themselves invested in a machine of their own, by which time late 70s novelties such as the Scat and Hustler already had one foot in the fairground twilight zone.

Henry Smith's machine represented the only Mark I Orbiter to be travelled in this country. Its basic features were similar to later models in that it had 18 cars mounted on 6 arms, with the centre column rotating at up to 15 rpm and the arms at up to 20 rpm, but the Mark I model utilised a centre paybox. This meant that the lifting centre – common to all subsequent Orbiters – did not apply to the Mark I model, the ride instead using neat drop-down steps on each car. This initial model still used a build-up floor (as did the early Mark II models) though it was converted to a folding system in the early 80s. The ride has enjoyed a celebrated history, passing over to Charles Thurston at the end of 1979 and causing a storm on Thurston's famous early season run of mid-lent fairs. Thurston replaced the centre paybox with a side paybox early in 1980, at the same time adding the famous sign that drew upon the early computer fonts common amongst much of the popular science fiction of the day. This merging of art and aesthetics into pure technology and movement was again testament to the Orbiter's highly progressive nature: whilst it might have been bereft of fairground art as we knew it, it was still a particularly engaging ride that entranced both the fairground enthusiast and punter alike. Later models would continue the trend of stripped down and functional designs, using fibre glass planet systems and lightning strikes as decoration. As a ride it continued to create a huge buzz of excitement wherever it went – I remember riding it myself for the first time in 1981 on Belper Coppice, memories still vivid of each rpm change as the machine picked up speed and ripped through the late Autumn air. The Mark I machine travelled with Charles Thurston up until 1984, passing next to James Mellors with whom it stayed for 12 years. After spending 5 years with Lancashire traveller Glynn DeKoning the machine celebrated its 25th anniversary with new owner Maxie Cole.

Meanwhile back at the Kent based factory Woolls had quickly established the Orbiter with Australian and American clients, this success spurring on the creation of the Mark II version. This made its debut under the ownership of Skelly and Robinson at Rhyl Amusement Park, arriving for the 1977 season, with a second Mark II machine taking a centre position on Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The Mark II version incorporated the lifting centre allowing the ride to load at ground level without the use of the drop-down steps, an increase in speed for both the centre rotation (now 20 rpm) and arm rotation (now 30 rpm) and a centre-mounted construction based upon a rocket shape. Both of these early Mark II versions are still travelling in this country, the Rhyl machine spending time at Southsea before being travelled by Jimmy Beach and Benny Irvin respectively, whilst the Blackpool machine is currently travelled by Joseph Stokes after spending over a decade with Albert Manning.

Photo: Blackpool Orbiter, 1980.
Skelly and Robinson's machine - OB3 - at Blackpool, 1980.

Photo: Skelly and Robinson's machine at Rhyl, 1977.
Skelly and Robinson's machine - OB2 - at Rhyl, 1977.

But it was the third Mark II machine that created most interest amongst UK showmen. This was purchased by Willie Wilson and debuted at Cannon Hill Park in June 1979, travelling on to the Town Moor later that month. Wilson's machine had the advantage of a folding floor, cutting the build-up and pull-down times to the absolute minimum that we are now used to, with Wilsons themselves famously performing an ultra-fast pull-down of their Orbiter and Tip-Top (another Richard Woolls creation) at a later Town Moor appearance. The Wilson Orbiter took in all the major fairs of 1979, appearing at Goose Fair in its original bright colours with red and white striped centre. Over the winter of 1979 the machine was revamped in black, with an emphasis on lighting effects including a huge circle of letters declaring the owners name around the centre. The machine stayed with Wilsons up until 1998, and shortly before its sale to Thomas Jones it celebrated its millionth rider – an incredible statistic that underlines the importance of the ride in the Wilson machine dynasty. Whilst 1980 saw Thurston's and Wilson's Orbiters take the country by storm, the delivery of a new all-black Mark II machine was made to Henry Smith at Margate and it was this machine, along with the Thurston one, that provided the thrills for Orbiter fans at the 1980 Goose Fair. Henry Smith's second Orbiter took in many major fairs before being sold to McCormicks of Ireland, being subsequently re-imported by Perrin Stevens in 1986.

Photo: Wilson's Orbiter, 1979.
Wilson's machine - OB4 - 1979.

Photo: Wilson's Orbiter at Goose Fair, 1979.
Making a debut at the Goose - OB4 - shortly before a repaint to black.

A further Mark II machine was purchased by Alan Crow in 1982 (sold to Billy Danter), before Woolls developed a smaller diameter machine for the US market (effectively a Mark III version). In 1988/9 four of these machines were taken on by Anderton and Rowland, Robert Nichols, John Wall and Donald Print, the first three of these still remaining with their original owners. The 90s saw a mixture of Mark II and Mark III machines being delivered to George Irvin, John Walter Shaw, Tommy Wilson, Albert Barker and Henry Evans (since re-built and exported) before the Orbiter effectively evolved into a new ride type – The Extreme. This turns the riders towards the vertical and uses the current vogue for dangly-feet type seating.

Photo: Shaw's Orbiter, 2001.
Shaw's Orbiter, 2001.

Rival rides were manufactured in short bursts by both Norson Power and William Thurston. The Norson Power machines were developed in partnership with showman Matty Taylor and a specialist hydraulics company who engineered for the North Sea oil industry. Though Norson Power went on to embrace further work in fairground engineering (producing hydraulics for Maxwell Waltzers), their version of the Orbiter only ran to three machines. Their machine, marketed as the Invader, was effectively a copy of Woolls' finished trailer-mounted Mark II model, though the Invaders were strikingly decorated with Galaxian heads and Space Invader imagery. This design latched onto the early 80s craze of arcade action, a forerunner of the Nintendo and PlayStation fever that currently features on many modern rides. Models were travelled by Keith James (1981), William Whitelegg (1981) and M. and D. Taylor (1982), all of these spending at least 10 years with their initial owners. The Keith James machine probably has the most interesting history, the ride being updated to the dangly-feet version and consequently losing all reference to its Space Invader theme. The Invaders live on though, re-surfacing as a type of Super Bob construction on Terry Storey's Orton and Spooner Ark! William Thurston similarly produced three Megatron Orbiters at the end of the 80s, models being travelled by Thurston himself, John Manning and J. Botton. Two of these rides became popular in Ireland.

Photo: Keith James' Space Invader derived Orbiter.
Keith James' Space Invader derived Orbiter.

Photo: William Thurston's Megatron, 1987.
William Thurston's Megatron, 1987.

But the real celebrations belong to Richard Woolls, who managed to place the jewel in the crown by introducing an English machine into the folklore of even the German fairground scene. The Germans had resisted the powerful charms of the Orbiter until 1995, when Albert Thiel and Patrick Roos became the first German showmen to invest in English technology in the post-war years. Further models followed onto the German fairground scene, each adopting a particular theme in the way that German showmen seem so keen to do – Scorpion, Shaver, Jukebox and finally the impeccably themed Joker.

You would find it hard to believe that a single machine could shape fairground technology in such a way in the modern age, but looking back on Woolls' early enthusiasm and belief in his creation you can detect that he had a desire to achieve just that. The simple fact that most of his machines are still travelling and, more so, still pulling in the crowds and sending them away with their heads reeling, goes some way to giving the Orbiter its place in the history books.

Originally published as 25 Years of Orbiting for the Fairground Mercury, 2001.

This version slightly revised for 2003 and again for 2005.