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10 Intriguing Origins of Popular Carnival Rides

by Gary Pullman
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

The traveling carnival, often known simply as a carnival, is largely held by historians to have originated from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Carnivals developed a bad reputation from their outset, which continued long after. This was due to two things: The “unsavory diversions” that carnivals offered, such as “freak shows, games of chance, and burlesque,” and the frequently dishonest and scandalous business practices of workers, which included operating “rigged games” and bogus exhibits, exhibiting nude or “scantily clad women,” bribing local authorities, and fighting their local customers, or “clems.”

Despite this notoriety, carnivals were popular, a large part of their attraction being due to the rides they offered, many of the more popular ones that appear on this list. One is actually older than the origin of the carnival itself, and most were invented or further developed during the first half of the twentieth century.

Here are the intriguing origins of 10 popular carnival rides.

Related: Top 10 Deadliest Rides in the World

10 Roller Coaster

Essential Roller Coaster History, Episode 1: From Russia With Love (1500’s – 1910’s)

The precursor to the modern roller coaster was Russia’s ice slides: 600-foot-long (183-meter) ramps that sleds would rush down, full of riders who had climbed a 70-foot-tall (21-meter) tower for the privilege of taking the thrilling ride. At the end of the ride, the passengers would ride “down a parallel slide,” which would return them to the original starting point.

In 1784, Catherine the Great transformed this wintry pursuit into an all-year pastime when, by her orders, wheels and grooved tracks were added to the coasters so they could be ridden at her palace even during summer.

The French added another innovation to the ride in 1817 when Belleville Mountain in Paris became the first slide to lock cars onto tracks by their wheel axles. A third improvement was the introduction, by the city’s Aerial Walks, of “a system for pulling the cars back up for” additional rides.[1]

9 Carousel

A brief history of how carousels got their start

Thomas Bradshaw invented the first steam-powered carousel in 1861. The carousel itself is much older. The original merry-go-round, as the ride is also known, was built of wood. The horses that passengers rode were motionless, except, that is, for the live ones that powered the ride’s circular platform when people weren’t used for this purpose.

Frederick Savage’s “galloping mechanism” was introduced in 1870. It was an innovation to Bradshaw’s invention, in which the steam engine turned a drive shaft with a cog at the end of it. The cog then turned “an angled bevel gear fixed to an upright pole,” which moved “a ring gear in the canopy,” causing the carousel to spin around.

Savage also added a gear and offset the crank mechanism to the steam-powered horses, making them rise and fall at different times. Another innovation, also by Savage, resulted in the horses hanging at various heights. Finally, a related innovation, the pole’s extension through a hole in the platform, allowed the poles to move a little forward as the ride went faster.[2]

8 Ferris Wheel

Defunctland: A Roundabout History of the Ferris Wheel

The Ferris wheel was created to represent American engineering at the 1893 World’s Fair. The ride, named for its inventor and builder, George Washington Gale Ferris, an engineer, was built on the principle of the bicycle wheel, with the “lower half suspended from the axle by the spoke rods running downward,” while the upper half of the wheel is supported by the lower half. The only difference is that the Ferris wheel “hangs by its axle, while a bicycle wheel rests on the ground with the weight applied downward on the axle.”

Ferris’s design gave great stability to his invention, which weighed 1,200 tons (1088 metric tons). Its safety was demonstrated by Ferris himself, who rode to the top of the wheel during a severe storm accompanied by winds of 100 miles per hour (161 km/h). Fifty cents was charged to ride the wheel, which was a hit from the moment it debuted, with riders declaring that they wouldn’t “take ten dollars for their experience.”[3]

7 The Witching Waves

Witching Waves – The Strangest Ride You’ve Never Heard of – Flat Ride of the Week 41

Jeffrey Stanton explains the origin of the Witching Waves ride in his article concerning Coney Island’s independent rides. At the outset of the automobile age, he says, people wanted to ride inside automobiles or even drive them, and it was to this intense desire that the Witching Waves catered.

The ride, invented in 1907 by Theophilus Van Kannel, first became available to the public at Coney Island three years later. The ride is a large oval course consisting of a flexible, stationary metal floor beneath which “hidden reciprocating levers” produce “a wave-like motion” that propels cars steered by their riders.

Actors ride the Witching Waves in the 1917 film Fatty in Coney Island, starring Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. Improbable antics ensue as the cars travel erratically, collide with one another, crash into an obstacle on the track, spill passengers, and make one rider nauseous.[4]

6 The Whip

Whip Rides Info and History – Flat Ride of the Week 36

W.F. Mangrels was a manufacturer of carousels and other carnival rides, notably for those at Coney Island. In 1914, he invented the Whip, an open, horse-shoe-shaped car with a rounded front in which one to three passengers ride on a bench-style seat, a safety bar before them, as the cars follow a circular track while the arms attached to the cars periodically “whip” them back and forth.

Several Whip rides are still in use today, including the one at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pennsylvania, manufactured in 1918, and Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, manufactured in 1926. Manufacturers continued to make several versions throughout the years; however, they are no longer in production.[5]

5 Bumper Cars

Driving The Dodgem Bumper Cars – Indiana Beach Amusement Park

Early in the 1920s, Max Stoehrer and his son Harold were granted a patent for an “Amusement Apparatus” that would eventually become their Dodgem cars after the inventors equipped the cars with “novel instrumentalities” that made it difficult to control with certainty by causing the vehicles to follow an irregular, undefined path and collide with other cars.

In effect, Stoehrer and his son offered riders the thrill of being in a series of safe car crashes. In partnership with Ralph Pratt, Stoehrer started a company to build a floor and roof for customers upon and under which to operate the cars they bought, adding improvements to their vehicles as they received additional patents in 1920, 1921, and 1923.[6]

4 Tilt-a-Whirl

Taking A Spin Through History In The ‘Birthplace Of The Tilt-A-Whirl’

“A devilish contraption.” That’s how Richard Kautz, the author of The Science of Predictable Random Motion, describes Herbert Sellner’s 1926 invention, the Tilt-a-Whirl. In the ride, each of the cars is mounted on its own circular platform that moves evenly along a circular track with three identical hills.

Boring? The ride might be, Kautz concedes, if the cars were “rigidly attached to the platforms” rather than being “free to rotate about a central pivot point that allows chaos to creep into the machine.” As a result of this innovation, riders are whirled clockwise and then counterclockwise and reverse directions randomly, keeping passengers in suspense as to what will happen next and wishing they’d passed on having eaten a hot dog before boarding.[7]

3 Bumper Boats

WCCO At The Fair: Bumper Boats

In a November 1997 article for Automobile Magazine, Seth Gussow brought readers up to speed on the 1930s origin of bumper boats. Not surprisingly, they were inspired by the Stoehrers’ bumper cars and were successful for a similar reason. As the Dodgem car had given many a first opportunity to “get behind the wheel of a car,” the boats gave many their first chance to operate a powerboat.

A partnership between the Dodgem Corporation and the Lusse Company operated like Pratt and Stoehrer in selling bumper cars. Two buildings valued at $27,500 were to be put up and mortgaged to the Philadelphia Toboggan Company PTC, and Dodgem was to supply fifty cars valued at $20,000. For the boat ride, PTC was apparently responsible for constructing a channel. Like the bumper cars, the bumper boats proved a smashing success.[8]

2 Rotor

Rotor/Gravitron Rides Information and history – Flat Ride Of The Week 11

Owned and operated by its inventor, Ernst W. Hoffmeister, of Hamburg, Germany, the Rotor was built by Anton Schwarzkopf and debuted in 1955. According to Amusement Park Extravaganza, in the United States, due to a patent disagreement among the ride’s makers and operators, the Velare Brothers were assigned the rights to build portable Rotors.” The Anglo Rotor Corporation was assigned the rights to stationary models.

The ride uses centrifugal force to pin its occupants to the outsides of its wooden cylinder until the Rotor reaches its optimal speed. At this point, passengers are safely stuck to the wall, and the ride’s operator lowers the floor, leaving riders high up the wall. As the ride ends, the cylinder gradually slows to a stop, and riders slowly slide down the wall to land on the lowered floor.

The invention of the Rotor was part of the broader trend in the mid-20th century to develop new and thrilling amusement rides that would attract visitors with novel and intense experiences. The Rotor became popular for its ability to provide a thrilling ride experience that was different from traditional roller coasters and other amusement park attractions. Various versions are still found in carnivals today, under several names, including the Round-Up and the Gravitron.[9]

1 Bounce House

The biggest bouncy castle, moonwalk, bounce house in the world (official video)

Inspired by the inflatable tent covers he designed for tennis courts, American engineer John Scurlock, who was employed by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and taught at Tulane University, invented the inflatable tent design of the bounce house in 1958. While working on the court covers, he noticed his employees enjoyed jumping on the inflated surfaces. This observation inspired him to create an inflatable play structure specifically designed for jumping and bouncing.

Scurlock’s invention aimed to provide a unique and entertaining way for children to play and expend energy. Bounce houses quickly became popular at parties, fairs, and amusement parks, offering a safe environment where children could enjoy physical activity.

The safety of subsequent versions of his original design, created by others, was investigated after a Little Tikes Jump n’ Slide went airborne, reaching an altitude of 50 feet (15 meters) during high winds and injuring two children who “toppled out,” one falling on asphalt, the other on a parked car. Heavier, more durable houses are safe, Space Walk company executives say.

The Mayo Clinic, however, states that each year, children sustain injuries on trampolines and in bounce houses ranging from sprains and broken bones to traumatic head and neck injuries. It recommends a number of actions to prevent injuries, including supervising bounce house use at all times, allowing use only by children of the same size and age, ensuring that the bounce house is securely attached to the ground, and refraining from using a bounce house during high winds and storms.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen