The History of Theme Park Inventions

Aerial view of a theme park during the daytime.

Angcr / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Carnivals and theme parks are the embodiment of the human search for thrill-seeking and excitement. The word "carnival" comes from the Latin Carnevale, which means "put away the meat." Carnival was usually celebrated as a wild, costumed festival the day before the start of the 40-day Catholic Lent period (usually a meat-free period).

The traveling carnivals and theme parks of today are celebrated year-round and have rides like a Ferris wheel, roller coasters, a carousel, and circus-like amusements to engage people of all ages. Learn more about how these famous rides came to be.

01
of 06

Ferris Wheel History

Ferris wheel at the Chicago World's Fair.

Library of Congress / Contributor / Getty Images

The first Ferris wheel was designed by George W. Ferris, a bridge builder from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ferris began his career in the railroad industry and then pursued an interest in bridge building. He understood the growing need for structural steel. Ferris founded G.W.G. Ferris & Co. in Pittsburgh, a firm that tested and inspected metals for railroads and bridge builders.

He built the Ferris wheel for the 1893 World's Fair, which was held in Chicago to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in America. The Chicago Fair's organizers wanted something that would rival the Eiffel Tower. Gustave Eiffel had built the tower for the Paris World's Fair of 1889, which honored the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.

The Ferris wheel was considered an engineering wonder. Two 140-foot steel towers supported the wheel. They were connected by a 45-foot axle, the largest single piece of forged steel ever made at that time. The wheel section had a diameter of 250 feet and a circumference of 825 feet. Two 1000-horsepower reversible engines powered the ride. The 36 wooden cars held up to 60 riders each. The ride cost 50 cents and made $726,805.50 during the World's Fair. It cost $300,000 to construct. 

02
of 06

Modern Ferris Wheel

The London Eye at night all lit up.

Mike_68 / Pixabay

Since the original 1893 Chicago Ferris wheel, which measured 264 feet, there have been nine world's tallest-ever Ferris wheels.

The current record holder is the 550-ft High Roller in Las Vegas, which opened to the public in March 2014.

Among the other tall Ferris wheels are the Singapore Flyer in Singapore, which is 541 feet tall, that opened in 2008; the Star of Nanchang in China, which opened in 2006, at 525 feet tall; and the London Eye in the U.K., which measures 443 feet tall.

03
of 06

Trampoline

Kangaroo and man jumping on a trampoline, black and white photo.
Bettmann/Getty Images

Modern trampolining, also called flash fold, has become popular in the last 50 years. The prototype trampoline apparatus was built by George Nissen, an American circus acrobat and Olympic medallist. He invented the trampoline in his garage in 1936 and subsequently patented the device.

The U.S. Air Force, and later the space agencies, used trampolines to train their pilots and astronauts.

The sport of trampoline debuted in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 as an official medal sport with four events: individual, synchronized, double mini, and tumbling. 

04
of 06

Rollercoasters

People Riding the Cyclone at Coney Island during daytime.

Rudy Sulgan / Getty Images

It is generally believed that the first roller coaster in the U.S. was built by L. A. Thompson and opened at Coney Island, New York, in June 1884. This ride is described by Thompson's patent #310,966 as "Roller Coasting."

Prolific inventor John A. Miller, the "Thomas Edison" of ​roller coasters, was granted over 100 patents and invented many of the safety devices used in today's roller coasters, including the "Safety Chain Dog" and "Under Friction Wheels." Miller designed toboggans before starting work at the Dayton Fun House and Riding Device Manufacturing Company, which later became the National Amusement Device Corporation. Together with partner Norman Bartlett, John Miller invented his first amusement ride, patented in 1926, called the Flying Turns ride. The Flying Turns was the prototype for the first roller coaster ride. However, it did not have tracks. Miller went on to invent several roller coasters with his new partner Harry Baker. Baker built the famous Cyclone ride at Astroland Park in Coney Island.

05
of 06

The Carousel

Horses on a carousel.

Virginie Boutin / EyeEm / Getty Images

The carousel originated in Europe but reached its greatest fame in America in the 1900s. Called a carousel or merry-go-round in the U.S., it is also known as a roundabout in England.

A carousel is an amusement ride consisting of a rotating circular platform with seats for riders. The seats are traditionally in the form of rows of wooden horses or other animals mounted on posts, many of which are moved up and down by gears to simulate galloping to the accompaniment of circus music.

06
of 06

The Circus

Performers during a live circus show, a woman balancing between two men riding horses.

Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

The modern circus as we know it today was invented by Philip Astley in 1768. Astley owned a riding school in London where Astley and his students gave exhibitions of riding tricks. At Astley's school, the circular area where the riders performed became known as the circus ring. As the attraction became popular, Astley began to add additional acts including acrobats, tightrope walkers, dancers, jugglers, and clowns. Astley opened the first circus in Paris, called "Amphitheatre Anglais."

In 1793, John Bill Ricketts opened the first circus in the U.S. in Philadelphia and the first Canadian circus in Montreal in 1797.

Circus Tent

In 1825, American Joshuah Purdy Brown invented the canvas circus tent.

Flying Trapeze Act

In 1859, Jules Leotard invented the flying-trapeze act, in which he jumped from one trapeze to the next. The leotard is named after him.

Barnum & Bailey Circus

In 1871, Phineas Taylor Barnum started the P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus in Brooklyn, New York, which featured the first sideshow. In 1881, P.T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey formed a partnership and started the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Barnum advertised his circus with the now-famous expression, "The Greatest Show on Earth."

The Ringling Brothers

In 1884, the Ringling Brothers, Charles and John, started their first circus. In 1906, the Ringling Brothers bought out the Barnum & Bailey Circus. The traveling circus show became known as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. On May 21, 2017, the "Greatest Show on Earth" closed after 146 years of entertainment.