Today, let us frighten ourselves -- just a little.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The modern amusement park
evolved for centuries. Historian Judith Adams
traces it to London's Bartholomew Fair -- a ten-day
trade fair that ran annually for 722 years, from
1133 until 1855. Ben Jonson's play
Bartholomew Fair, written in 1615,
told about exotica, jugglers, monsters and marvels
-- with pickpockets, pimps, and con artists
swirling through it all.
We finally harnessed that kinetic excitement --
that elixir of danger -- only a century ago. By
1893, three new technologies of physical elation
had entered the fair and changed it. They were the
carousel, the roller coaster, and the Ferris wheel.
First, the carousel: It was the grandchild of an
old Turkish jousting game. In the European version
mounted players, dressed like knights, tried to run
their lances through brass rings.
Then the steed became a wooden horse moving on a
spoke, powered by a mule. Steam engines eventually
replaced mules. In 1907 we added a gallop
mechanism. Finally children bobbed around that
magic circle on wooden horses to the music of a
The ancestor of the roller coaster came out of
17th-century Russia -- a 70-foot snow-packed slide.
You rode down it in a tiny two-man sled, like a
luge in today's winter Olympic Games.
Parisians created a wheeled version in 1804. When
it had broken enough bones, they began inventing
safety features. But the biggest drawback remained.
You had to haul your cart to the top before you
could ride it down.
The American version came out in 1878. It had wavy
side-by- side tracks running downhill in opposite
directions. On each end, cranes hoisted carts back
up the starting towers. The first one was built at
Coney Island. So was the first fully evolved roller
coaster, the famous Cyclone ride, built in 1927.
The last great ride had no prior history. Ferris
simply sat down and dreamt it up for the 1893
Chicago Columbia Exposition. The first Ferris wheel
was the grandest of them all, with a 264-foot
diameter. It was three times larger than any since.
The Chicago Fair was to be a triumph of graceful
urban design. They called it The White City and
relegated the seamier side to a strip of land
midway between the fair grounds and nearby
Washington Park. That's where the rides and
concessions went. That's where Ferris's great wheel
stood and dominated the fair. That's how the word
midway joined our vocabulary.
I live a mile from the spawn of all this: Houston's
AstroWorld. Children bus in to ride those great
looping gravity violators. They come to be charmed
by motion and speed and to satisfy the
still-terrible need for an illusion of danger.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Adams, J.A., The American Amusement Park
Industry: A History of Technology and
Thrills, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
Applebaum, S., The Chicago World's Fair of
1893: A Photographic Record, New York: Dover
Publications Inc., 1980.
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Library, for suggesting the topic and
drawing my attention to the Adams source.
From the October, 1896,
Image of a carousel from 1896. Perhaps it is no
coincidence that it looks to us like a flying
saucer landing on earth!
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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