History of the Fairground Carousel

Modern Carousel Horse

Early versions were very different from the modern carousel rides we see at funfairs today. And having sprung up from early jousting traditions, the carousel has a rich history in being used to train knights, test the skills of everyday men and today, entertain families and children.

The word carousel comes from the Italian garosello and Spanish carousella, which roughly translate to “little battle” – and this word was used by knights to describe a game played by Turkish and Arabian horsemen in the 12th Century. The game would involve horsemen galloping in a circle while throwing balls from one to another.

This game later developed to replace the balls with small suspended rings that had to be speared by the circling riders. And by the 17th Century, games similar to this became popular in western and southern Europe among commoners as well as trained horsemen; carousels soon began to pop up across Europe as a form of entertainment, with wooden horses set up for children.

18th Century carousels started to resemble more of what we expect to see at funfairs today. However, carousels did not have platforms and instead the animals (usually horses) would hang from chains. The mechanism would be rotated by animals walking in a circle or workmen pulling a rope.

Modern Carousels

Throughout the 19th Century, the carousel ride was becoming more popular at funfairs across the UK. However, it was Thomas Bradshaw’s invention of the mechanical steam-powered roundabout that changed carousels as they were known at the time – the first of which appeared at Aylsham fair in 1861.

This inspired budding engineer Frederick Savage to innovate the field of fairground machines by manufacturing the first carousels to feature velocipedes, which were effectively an early type of bicycle. Soon after, Frederick improved the traditional mount of the carousel horse by introducing gears and cranks to the platform of the ride – and this provided the well-known upward and downward motion of the horse we know today.

With these innovations the horses appeared to gallop around a centre pole, however, this prompted Frederick to add other animals and stationary chariots to form a new variation of the ride called the Platform Gallopers.

Over time electric motors were installed and lights added to give the carousel a more modern and theatrical look. This in combination with typical fairground music has made the carousel suitable for all occasions and one of the most popular rides at modern funfairs.

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