...And around we go!

I’m willing to bet most of us have ridden a carousel (or “merry go round,” or “Carrousel” if you’re at Euclid Beach of course!) but ever think about what a marvelous piece of engineering a carousel is?

What makes a “merry go round” go ‘round?

Consider this: a carousel uses a mechanism that was pretty much perfected over a century ago. Aside from changes in power (four legged, steam then electric & sometimes gasoline), the basic design is the same regardless of the size of the carousel, and has stood the test of time with very little change.

Below is a good explanation of how a carousel works (from enotes.com):

“The carousel revolves around a stationary center pole made of metal or wood. An electric motor drives a small pulley that is controlled by a clutch for smooth starts. This pulley turns a drive belt and a larger pulley that turns a small-diameter, horizontal shaft. The end of the shaft is a pinion gear that turns a platform gear. The platform gear supports a vertical shaft that turns another pinion gear and final drive gear attached to the support beams of the carousel, called sweeps, which extend outward from the center pole like the ribs of an umbrella and support the platform, horses, and riders. The sweeps hold cranking rods that are turned by small gears at the inner ends that are driven by a stationary gear on the center pole. Horse hangers are suspended from the cranks, and as they turn, the horses move up and down about 30 times per minute. A typical carousel platform with horses and riders may weigh 10 tons and be driven by a 10-horsepower electric motor. After the motor's revolutions are reduced by the series of gears, the riders on the outer row of mounts will gallop along at about 5-11 miles per hour.”

Not too shabby heh? Remember that back in the “Golden Era” of carousels, when they were all hand carved etc, that carousel was the “thrill ride” of the park. Coaster-type rides of the era were typically the old “Switchback Railways”, with gentle hills and running at a walking pace. (It didn’t take long for coaster technology to figure out how to get more speed -- & thrills – out of their rides, but that’s another article!) So now you climb aboard your nearby carousel – and you’re really flying, by comparison. This is as much an optical illusion as anything – a Switchback Railway being all out in the open, gives you a wide open look at your surroundings as you ride along, plus they often were “Scenic” in later years. On a carousel, on the other hand, you’re close to your fellow riders, all of you moving, and you really can’t see beyond the carousel’s rim, plus you probably have mirrors flashing by as you turn – kinda like why the Flying Turns seemed to be faster than it really was: all you saw was the same wood barrel going by! And a correctly operated carousel, running at the speed it was designed for, will surprise you with how fast it really is.

But back to our carousel workings!

You will not, of course, see all this marvelousness happening, because carousel manufacturers do an equally wonderful job of hiding it all. Starting at the top on the outside edge then, you’ll have your rounding boards, then around the center pole & its workings you’ll see scenery panels above & drum panels below. Most big park carousels will have all this; smaller portable machines may not have the lower panels, less to have to set up! And while all carousels have this camouflage, anything goes as far as what it looks like! Think mirrors, lights, painted scenes – anything that adds to illusion of speed & motion.

Our Euclid Beach Carrousel’s decoration, while a full blown elaborate design in 1910 when installed at Euclid Beach, had been greatly simplified, during the Art Deco era of the 30’s; all the decoration became very minimal & streamlined. Another unique part of our Carrousel was its decorated ceiling (remember the birds?), curved panels fitted between the sweeps to give an arched effect. (Large “park” carousels like our PTC 19 were usually in a building, and so did not have the canvas canopy many smaller carousels may have.) It carries 58 horses (standers / stationary horses on the outermost row) and 2 large chariots on a roughly 60 foot diameter platform on a centerpole standing about 25 to 30 foot tall. 

And this all turns from the top of that centerpole!

Think about the engineering here now. All this weight (58 horses, even if they’re partly hollow is ALOT of weight! Plus 2 big chariots. Even before you had riders!) is not only balanced, but turning easily. It doesn’t matter how many riders are on the carousel (although operators will ‘balance” the load if needed), that carousel turns, horses going up & down and all.

Pretty cool, no?

An important aspect of the ride is the “look and feel” – how do the jumping horses look when the ride is running? Get it wrong, and the ride looks choppy, get it right and you have what has been called “a dance of light and motion”. Good news for our Carrousel’s restoration, when we were researching our proposal, we found that “getting it right” will be no different in cost than not doing so; it’s all in the timing of the cranks, to get the right look. (There are all stationary machines with all standing figures, one is in Logansport IN. A very eerie feeling; with no cranks turning or figures moving – this carousel has other animals as well as horses – it’s absolutely quiet! Almost too quiet!)

Another neat (and rare today) part of the Carrousel’s fun, is the Ring Machine. If you’re on the outside (and stationary) row, you may have “reached for the brass ring”. The Ring Machine, which our Carrousel had, is a hollow arm that swings down towards that outside edge of the Carrousel, loaded with steel rings (& one brass one) that come down to the bottom one at a time as riders snatch them on their way around. Catch the brass ring, and you get a free ride! Very few parks operate ring machines these days, but if you’re lucky enough to find a carousel running one, definitely try it (my first time was at Knoebel’s – much to my delight I turned out to be pretty good at it!)

Of course all carousels need music – and best of course is a Band Organ. Band Organs not only supply the “sounds” of the carousel, but often become part of the decoration as well – there are some lovely band organ screens that stood in front of the instrument, adding more color as well as music. Band Organs are also strictly outdoor music machines! There is no volume control on them, since their purpose is not only provide the music (traditionally marches and waltzes – music with a beat and rhythm!) but to attract your attention to the Carrousel and entice you to ride it.

So there we are. A vintage ride for all ages, and an engineering marvel to boot. Not too many mechanical things that we see & use everyday, can claim to have a carousel’s mechanism’s history of working so well for so long. Hope that the next time you ride a carousel, you’ll enjoy knowing about what “makes it go ‘round”!)


Spring is finally springing – really! But if you need a “carousel fix” sooner than the amusement parks’ usual end of May opening, don’t forget the Richland Carrousel in Mansfield, or the Merry Go Round Museum in Sandusky -- & take a spin into memories of times gone by.


See you around!!

Elva Brodnick is the President of Euclid Beach's Carrousel Committee

Euclid Beach Carrousel Committee
PO Box 91162 –  Cleveland OH 44101
Email: ebcarrousel@gmail.com or carrollsell@gmail.com
Phone: 440–942–1493
Facebook: Euclid Beach Carrousel Committee

Read More on Naturally Collinwood
Volume 3, Issue 3, Posted 10:16 AM, 05.04.2011