Around and about the world of carousels;Discovery series;Discover fairs

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
One of the purposes of the Royalle Carouselle, as it was called in a patent application of 1673, was to give "sufficient instruction to all such ingenious young gentleman as desire to learne the art of perfect horsemanshipp with all the usual practices and exercises thereof". This, despite the fact that the carousel (from the ancient Spanish word carosella, meaning "little war") derives from a vigorous sport popular in Arabia and Turkey in the 12th century, where balls filled with scented water were thrown from one horseman to another, the object being to make a safe catch.

* One of the most enduring images of a fairground and one of the most romantic is a traditional roundabout turning gently to organ music. With its wild-eyed, gaudy horses in mid-stride, their tails streaming and teeth bared, the carousel manages to stave off obsolesence by offering a soothing few minutes in an otherwise raucous landscape.

* Carousels have been modified to hold cockerels, horses with generals' heads (during the Boer War), balloons and even flying pigs. After the First World War, entertainment mirrored reality in that, just as the tank had replaced the cavalry in the conflict, so it replaced the horse on some carousels. On others, it was the motor car. Eventually, though, the passion for technology waned, and horses returned - along with, in some cases, bears, dragons and ostriches.

* Carousels are driven in an anti-clockwise motion in every European country except England, where the practice of mounting a horse from the left meant it was made to turn with the opposite motion. The Americans follow continental custom, perhaps because many of their earliest carousels were made by immigrants from mainland Europe.

* Frederick Savage, an agricultural engineer, saw one of the first steam-driven carousels at Aylsham Fair in Norfolk in 1863. Noting both the deficiencies and the potential of the machine, Savage returned to his works at King's Lynn and spent much of the rest of his life developing the steam-driven "gallopers" (horse carousels) now considered classics of their kind.

* Horses weren't the only attraction. Aside from their wonderfully ornate and exuberant decor, crowds were drawn to carousels by the blaring organ music. Driven at first by compressed air, these contraptions were thought miraculous. From 1892 barrel organs were partially superseded by ones that used perforated card pages to notate the sound. In turn, these gave way to the panatrope, the showmen's name for a record player with a powerful amplifier which, in the years following the First World War, hastened the relegation of the fairground organ to a nostalgia item or collector's piece.

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