Early Centrifugal Railways

The first looping roller coasters originated not as amusement rides, but as theatrical exhibitions in which the customers paid to watch, rather than to ride. The first exhibits were of models incapable of carrying a human passenger:

The Manchester Times and Gazette (Manchester, England)
Saturday, May 2, 1840

Mechanics' Institution Exhibition.

The next is a curious optical illusion made by Mr. Roberts; ... We come now to the centrifugal railway mentioned last week, and which excites so much attention.

The first full scale centrifugal railway was introduced as a 'scientific' theatrical entertainment in Manchester, England in 1842, then relocated to Liverpool:

The Manchester Times and Gazette (Manchester, England)
Saturday, April 2, 1842

Centrifugal Railway Exhibition-

In order to accommodate those parties who may desire to witness this striking scientific novelty (free from the inconvenience incident to the immense crowds attending Easter Fair), the Proprietors respectfully inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of Manchester and its vicinity the Exhibition will be Resumed on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, in the next week. In the mornings, at 11 and 12, and 1 and 2 p. m. admission, 6d. Reserved seats for ladies. In the evening, at 8; admission 3d. Entrance by the large door of the Hall of Science, Camp Field, opposite St. Matthew's Church.

This colossal exhibition (taken from a model deposited by Mr. R. Roberts, in the Royal Victoria Gallery, Manchester), is upwards of 200 feet in length, and consists of an inclined plane, down which a carriage descends with such velocity that the momentum acquired carries it up in the air round a vertical circle of 40 feet, and on to a second inclined plane, which it ascends. The journey is performed in a few seconds, at the rate of nearly 100 miles per hour. Heavy weights, a bucket of water, and living men, will thus ascend the vertical circle with perfect safety.

The Voltaic Battery, and other scientific experiments, will also be exhibited.

Liverpool Mercury (Liverpool, England)
Friday, April 22, 1842
Extraordinary Exhibition,
at the
Royal Liver Theatre, Church-street.
Now Open and will continue for a short time
A Grand Centrifugal Railway,
200 feet long, with a vertical Circle upwards of 40 feet in circumference, round which a Carriage, 200 pounds in weight, containing a Lady or Gentleman, will revolve at the rate of One Hundred Miles Per Hour, with perfect safety; also immense Iron Weights and Buckets of Water will be placed in the Carriage, and, although the whole will be completely inverted, not a weight or a drop of water will be displaced. Also, a brilliant Display of the Oxyhydrogen Light, with other interesting Scientific Experiments.
Morning Exhibition at Half-past Twelve o'clock.
The first Exhibition in the evening at Half-past Six.
The second at Half-past Eight precisely.
Admission:--Boxes, 2s.; Pit, 1s.; Gallery, 6d.
(The Railway has been constructed by Wm. Tarr and H. Riley, of Manchester, on a scale never before exhibited in the World.)
The Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Ireland)
Tuesday, April 26, 1842
Centrifugal Railway.--A very ingenious and extraordinary exhibition was lately opened at the Liver Theatre which is calculated to attract the attention of the curious and scientific. It consists of a centrifugal railway, two hundred feet in length, with a vertical circle upwards of forty feet in circumference, constructed by Messrs. Tarr and Riley of Manchester, from a small model presented to them by a gentleman of that town.--The railway has been made upon a scale sufficiently large to convey an individual with perfect safety, and with a rapidity equal, it is said, to that of one hundred miles an hour. Whether this rate be exaggerated or not we cannot exactly say, but the velocity with which the carriage, is carried from one end of the theatre to the opposite, unquestionably exceeds anything of the kind we have hitherto seen. The construction is simple. The carriage in the first instance, runs down an inclined plane, then travels round the vertical circle and ascends another inclined plane, at the top of which its journey ends. No person ventured on the conveyance last evening, nor indeed was it the wish of its proprietors that any one should, as the workmanship had only just been completed, and had not been sufficiently tested; but the carriage was passed across several times, carrying buckets of water and half hundred weights. The rapidity with which it travelled the verticle circle completely set the laws of gravity at defiance, by preventing the weights from falling out, or the water from being upset. The experiments were received with loud applause by the audience. We are happy to say that no accident occurred, or is likely to occur, owing to the attention paid by the proprietors to the erection of the inclined planes, which are of timber, and the circle, which is composed of iron.--Females have had the fortitude, in Manchester, to travel by this extraordinary conveyance.--Liverpool Mail.
Liverpool Mercury
Friday, April 29, 1842
Centrifugal Railway.--This curious exhibition, now open at the Liver Theatre, has attracted the attention of a number of our townsmen, and is well deserving of a visit. It consists of two inclined planes, of about 100 feet in length each, and a vertical circle of forty feet diameter, round which a carriage revolves at the rate of 100 miles an hour. The starting point is at the back of the gallery, and the car, in moving down the first incline, acquires sufficient momentum to cause it to revolve round the vertical circle, in coming down which sufficient momentum is again acquired to propel the car up the second incline, which runs up to the back of the stage, the circle being near the bottom of the pit. First a 56lb. weight is placed in the car, then a 56lb. weight and a bucket of water. A man also travels along the line, and, finally, a female takes her seat in the car, and passes along the railway in perfect safety. It may be as well to remark that, from its being necessary that the car should always start from a point higher than that at which it rests on a level road, of course, this kind of railway could be of little or no practical utility; and, in fact, unless there is a continued decline in the road, even were all other matters applicable, there is little probability of this being more than a mere mechanical curiosity, illustrative of the principle of centrifugal force; but as such it is worthy of a visit from the curious. A very pleasing exhibition of the magic lantern takes place also, and the oxyhydrogen light is shown an explained, thus affording all parties an opportunity of spending an hour in the most pleasing and rational manner, and on terms suited to all classes.

Following this initial success, additional centrifugal railways were built. These traveled to various locations including Dublin, London, and even New York, in 1842.

The Manchester Times and Gazette (Manchester, England)
Saturday, May 14, 1842

Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, Hyde Road.--Fireworks on the Evenings of Whit Monday and Whit Friday. ...

The proprietor has also engaged with parties to exhibit the Centrifugal Railway, on an extensive scale, which will be exhibited in the open ground, making a circuit of 200 feet in 12 seconds.--On the evenings of Monday and Friday the centrifugal railway will be illuminated with fireworks.

Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin, Ireland)
Saturday, July 23, 1842

Centrifugal Railway.

We have visited the exhibition now open to the public under the above title at the Rotundo, and would recommend all who are desirous of seeing a novel, and at the same time, instructive illustration of two of the most extraordinary laws of motion, to visit the Rotundo while the centrifugal railway is being exhibited.

The construction of the railway is admirably adapted to the object in view, and even to those theoretically versed in the law which it is designed to illustrate, it is calculated to give an impression not attainable by any other means that we have hitherto seen employed. The announcement in the bills (contrary to the usual custom) contains no exaggeration--all the experiments therein stated are performed, and in such a manner as to give complete satisfaction.

Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin, Ireland)
Monday, August 1, 1842
Extraordinary Exhibition,
At The Rotundo, Sackville-Street,
Is Now Open.
A Grand Centrifugal Railway, Two Hundred Feet, with a Vertical Circle, upwards of Forty Feet in Circumference, round which a Carriage 200 pounds in weight, containing a Lady or Gentleman, will revolve at the rate of 100 miles per hour, with perfect safety. Also immense iron weights and buckets of water will be placed in the Carriage, and although the whole will be completely inverted, not a weight or a drop of water will be displaced.
Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin, Ireland)
Saturday, September 17, 1842

Centrifugal Railway.

Our readers will perceive, by the announcement in another column, that several interesting additions have been made to the exhibition of the Centrifugal Railway at the Rotundo, and that the whole will close after another week. ... We are informed by the proprietor that 443 gentlemen and 55 ladies have already taken trips on the Centrifugal Railway in this city, without the slightest accident, and that all of them have expressed themselves much gratified with that novel and wonderful mode of locomotion. The exhibition is, on the whole, one of the most interesting ones that have ever been introduced into Dublin, and is well worthy of a visit from all persons.
The Hull Packet (Hull, England)
Friday, September 23, 1842
Zoological Gardens.--The auxiliary attraction at this delightful spot, the Centrifugal Railway, is about to be withdrawn,--doubtless to be followed by some other novelty, in the production of which the committee is never wanting.
The Examiner (London, England)
Saturday, September 24, 1842
Extraordinary Novelty!
Grand Centrifugal Railway, 200 feet long, on which a Carriage of nearly 200lbs. containing a Lady or Gentleman, descends an inclined plane, passing round a Vertical Circle of 40 feet, turning the head of the individual downwards, and feet in the air; the Carriage then Descends the Circle, rises a second inclined plane, and lands the individual safe, at the rate of 100 miles an hour; which is just added to Dubourg's splendid Exhibition of Mechanical Figures, ... Great Windmill street, Haymarket. The Car will descend every hour. ... N.B. Amongst the most distinguished personages that have descended in the Car at Lord de Tabley, Sir R. Wilson, Captain Polhill, M.P., Counts Barthyany, A. Esterhazy, Labrisse, &c. &c.
The Morning Chronicle (London, England)
Monday, September 26, 1842
Grand Flying Centrifugal Railway, now Exhibiting at the Egyptian-hall, Piccadilly.--The Railway is 200 feet in length, down which a triumphal car, containing a living passenger, descends and gains sufficient momentum to whirl it round a Circle 40 feet in circumference, then ascend another incline in perfect safety, and during this transit the head of the traveller is completely inverted, the whole accomplished in five seconds and a half. The segments, base, &c., of cast metal, brilliantly designed and ornamented; thus requiring no artificial support in any shape.
The New York Herald
Friday, October 14, 1842
Castle Garden.
Unprecedented Novel and Extraordinary Attraction.
Great Croton Celebration.
Friday, Oct. 14th, 1842.
Also, the
Centrifugal Railway,
which has drawn an immense concourse of persons the past week to the Garden, to witness this novel and most thrilling spectacle. It is made of cast iron, and is about 200 feet long; it consists of two inclined planes, and a
Perpendicular Circle,
Forty-two feet in Circumference.
A car containing one passenger is started from the top of the highest part of the inclined plane, and by means of the momentum gained in the descent, is carried round the interior of the circle,
The Passenger and Car
at one time being
Upside Down!
From the top of the circle, the car descends to the ground, and then shoots upwards to the first Promenade of the Garden.

But the following description fails to mention the passenger promised by the advertisement:

New York Daily Tribune
Wednesday, October 19, 1842

The Centrifugal Railway which we saw in Castle Garden, is extremely curious. A four-wheeled car, some two feet long, is placed at the head of an inclined plane with a base equal to about twice its height. In it are placed a heavy weight and a pail of water. The momentum it acquires in its descent sends it completely around the upright circle, some ten feet in diameter, on its concave surface, and then up a plane of less inclination than the first. The weight and water meanwhile remain undisturbed.
The Bristol Mercury (Bristol, England)
Saturday, November 5, 1842
The Greatest wonders of the Age.
The Grand
Centrifugal Railway and Patent Signal Telegraph, or Writing-Machine,
(from the Egyptian Hall, London,)
At Ryan's Circus, Back of the Full Moon, North-Street.
The Centrifugal Railway is 200 feet in length, down which a Triumphal Car, containing a Living Passenger ...
Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin, Ireland)
Saturday, December 31, 1842
Centrifugal Railway--Adelphia Theatre.
This interesting and instructive exhibition still remains open, and has been visited during the past week by some of the most distinguished families in town.

A centrifugal railway with a double loop was exhibited in 1843 in Dublin and Derby.

The Derby Mercury (Derby, England)
Wednesday, July 5, 1843

Grand Double Centrifugal Railway,
will be Open for Inspection (This Day).
Wednesday, July 5th,
In Victoria Street, Derby.
The Proprietor begs leave to inform the Inhabitants of Derby and its Neighbourhood, that he has taken Premises at the Back of Mr. Jackson's Glass Warehouse, for a short time, for the Exhibition of

The Grand Centrifugal Railway,

Consisting of Two Circles, Eighty Feet in Circumference, thereby producing a Railway nearly Two Hundred Feet in length, which may with truth be pronounced one the greatest Scientific Wonders ever produced. A Living Passenger will descend the Incline, traverse the Two Circles, and rise the Second Incline in perfect safety.

Although these were primarily exhibition devices, members of the public were sometimes invited to ride. However, a centrifugal railway installed in 1843 at the Zoological Gardens in Liverpool was clearly employed as a ride:

Liverpool Mercury (Liverpool, England)
Friday, September 8, 1843

Zoological Gardens.--It will be seen by the advertisement in another column, that two grand fashionable galas are announced ... During the day the centrifugal railway and camera obscura will be exhibited.
Liverpool Mercury
Friday, July 5, 1844
Zoological Gardens.--The attendance at this fashionable resort continues undiminished ... The centrifugal railway on gala nights is in continual operation; in fact, passengers cannot be sufficiently accommodated, dozens sometimes being in waiting to traverse the line. A large number of ladies now venture in the car, that mode of conveyance having become highly popular amongst the fair sex.
Liverpool Mercury
Tuesday, May 11, 1858

Zoological Gardens.
The Storming of Delhi.

There were ceaseless winging in the gymnasia and continual cracking and whizzing in the shooting gallery; and daring adventurers of both sexes, ascended the tower of the centrifugal railway, seated themselves in the carriage, and were whirled round within the upright circle to their own satisfaction and the gratification of the on-lookers.

This ride was blown down in a gale in December, 1852, but was rebuilt for the 1853 season. In 1857, it was re-themed, with its tower decorated as a Chinese pagoda. The ride operated at least to 1862, and possibly until the last season in 1865, since it was present at the auction in early 1866.

Another device operated as a ride at St. Helena Gardens, Rotherhithe, London, from 1851 at least until 1860.

Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper (London, England)
Sunday, July 13, 1851

St. Helena Gardens, Rotherhithe, Grand Centrifugal Railway.
This extraordinary Machine, lately exhibited at Edinburgh to admiring thousands, may now be seen in the course of erection. The Gardens, rich in natural beauty, are Open on Mondays and Wednesdays only for Amusements, when a grand Gala, with Fireworks, Concert, and Ball will take place; and a monster Model of the Crystal Palace, in fireworks, will be shown.
The Era (London, England)
Sunday, July 27, 1851
St. Helena Gardens, Rotherhithe.--Grand Centrifugal Railway. This extraordinary Machine is now complete, the dimensions are on a most extensive scale, being upwards of 200 feet in length, and constructed upon a new and safe principle, affording the visitors an opportunity of experiencing the thrilling effect of a speedy trip by centrifugal force.
The Era (London, England)
Sunday, August 10, 1851
Centrifugal Railway.--On Friday evening a somewhat surprising novelty was exhibited at St. Helena Gardens, Rotherhithe, in the shape of a centrifugal railway. The machine, which covers a space of two or three hundred feet, consists of a pair of rails elevated at each end nearly forty feet above the ground, and descending towards the centre to within two or three feet of the earth. The rails, however, are not simply descending and ascending, for in the centre, and lower part of the line of the railway, an upright iron circle is placed, reaching from fifteen to twenty feet at the highest point, and in the interior of which the lines are placed, in continuation of those on the slant already mentioned. A carriage is on the lines, which being started from either extremity runs down the incline, turns a complete somerset inside the circle, and is thrown up with lightning rapidity to the further extremity of the machine. Several persons took their seats in the carriage, and however improbable it may seem without ocular proof, the travellers had a still more convincing demonstration by their vehicle running down, turning completely over (with wheels towards the sky), and safely carrying its passengers to the further extremity in considerably less than half a minute. The rapidity of this centrifugal journey leaves no time for the passengers to fall out, although, as we have said, the wheels are for an instant towards the sky, and the passengers heads towards the ground.

One of the latest reports of a centrifugal railway exhibition comes from San Francisco:

Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California)
Thursday, July 23, 1863

Centrifugal Railways

In a convenient place on Third street, near Folsom, a private exhibition was yesterday given of a "Centrifugal Railway," preparatory to the public show, which will occur next week. The conscientious reader of newspapers will perhaps remember accounts of similar exhibitions in Paris and London within the past three years, but the institution is of much older date. One was exhibited in England and on the European continent 20 years ago. After this little preliminary the inquisitive may desire to know what a centrifugal railway is.

A miniature railway is laid from one elevated point to another--that from which it is intended the car shall start being the higher. Reaching the ground it curves around in the air, describing a complete circle, and ascends the inclined plane on the opposite side to the landing place. An idea of the thing may be obtained by placing two chairs a distance of 8 feet apart, and laying a wire from one to the other, dipping it down to the floor at an angle of say 25 or 30 degrees, bending it over so as to form a complete wheel or loop, whose lower circumference shall rest upon the floor about midway between the two points, and carrying the end up at an angle somewhat less than the angle of descent, chair to chair. This illustration may not give a very clear impression of the affair, but a better one does not suggest itself. From one end of this railway a car is launched, laden with sufficient weight to give it great impetus--it travels around in the wheel of the rail like a squirrel, and dashes up the opposite ascent to its depot. Of course at one period of its revolution--when the circuit of the wheel is just half completed--the car is upside down, and the man, boy, fool, or keg of nails that is riding inside has its head downwards. But the centrifugal impetus gained by the avalanche-like descent prevents the car from dropping to the ground and carries it around the circle in safety, while the motion communicated to the passenger prevents him from dropping out. The car for the moment is Rome, and the passenger in its whirl finds himself obliged to do precisely as it does, with no volition in the matter at all. Accidents occasionally happen in these exhibitions. In Paris, for instance, the car once had not gained sufficient impetus, and dropped down from the ceiling on which its wheels were attempting to run. The car was not much injured, but the passenger was, as the fall broke his neck. The Emperor didn't like this--every man represents a possible soldier in the grand army, and he could not afford to have his soldiers' necks broken, even for the furtherance of science or the testing of philosophical experiments, so the police interfered and compelled the railway proprietors to continue their show with a bag of potatoes for freight, which had no necks to be broken, and whose eyes could not very easily be put out. On second thought, the incident occurred during Louis Philippe's time; but as Tools says, "it's of no consequence."

After all, the chief charm of these exhibitions, acrobatic and all, lies simply and purely in the danger they involve. People did not go to see Blondin walk safely over Niagara--they paid their money with the chances in their favor that he would fall in, but he disappointed them. Sporting men will always bet you odds that the performer of these difficult feats will break his neck within a certain length of time--it is only a question of time, after all; assisted by a nervous moment or a misstep by so much as a hair's line. One of the Hanlon brothers at Niblo's Garden some two years since fell a distance of forty feet to the ground, in performing on l'echelle perileuse. The audience applauded the feat immensely, and were very much surprised when two men had to pick him up and carry him from the stage--they though it was a part of the performance. The lion-tamer put his head in the lion's mouth safely for a great many years--one day the lion bit it off, and it proved a sad loss to the owner, a loss he has never since been able to replace. Blondin will break his neck some day; shrewd sporting men are betting on it, and the result is as sure as a mathematical demonstration can make it. Perhaps after all, however, these centrifugal railways are not much more dangerous that the Hudson River railroad, and the multitude travel by that in place of smoothly going by boat. The proprietor of the San Francisco Centrifugal Railway tells us that a man has paid $10 for the privilege of having the first ride, and we certainly wish the man a pleasant trip and a not very dusty ride. The peculiar "sensation" is worth something. But suppose--everything else being all "ship-shape and Bristol-fashion"--a flange breaks, or the car somehow jumps the rail--then? Ah, what then! Where is the man? Echo answers no where. It is certain that for the same sum this man could safely ride on the Omnibus Road between South park and North beach for nearly a year. We do not apprehend that the centrifugal railway will ever become a very favorite plan of travel--though there are certainly fools enough in the world to ride it and patronize the route well. Those intending to take passage might as well ride to the depot in a hearse, so as to become accustomed to the style conveyance, and carry along their coffins with them by way of preparing for all possible accidents and emergencies. Of course it can be demonstrated, both practically and theoretically, that not much danger exists--every one has seen a tumbler of water whirled rapidly around one's head without a drop being spilled, and this is only a repetition of that experiment on a large scale. But accidents occur even on the best regulated railroads, where the cars run along on a level track in the natural order of Providence, and if any chose to make themselves squirrels, and try to revolve themselves in a wheel, not being born squirrels, they must take the risks, and surely cannot blame the great multitude for paying a few bits to see the thing done instead of trying it themselves.

Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco)
Monday, August 17, 1863
The Centrifugal Railway.--During the present week the centrifugal railway will continue to be exhibited daily on Third street, between Folsom and Harrison streets, from 1 to 5 and from 7 to 8 1/2 P. M. The car will start every half hour.
Comments may be sent to Victor Canfield

Last revised 31-July-2012

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