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.
Smith's machine - OB1 - at Stratford, 1977.
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
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 ;
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.
Skelly and Robinson's machine - OB3 - at Blackpool, 1980.
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.
Wilson's machine - OB4 - 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
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
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
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.
Space Invader derived Orbiter.
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
and finally the impeccably themed
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