Fun and nausea: the history of the Gravitron

If you’ve been to a carnival or a state fair, you’ve probably seen the Gravitron (or Starship 2000, Starship 3000, Starship 4000, Alien Abduction, or one of its many other names). Despite appearances, the Gravitron didn’t just descend from space. It’s part of a long history of nausea-inducing centrifugal force rides.

Joy Wheel

Archival Photo

The beginning was the Joy Wheel

When’s the last time you’ve been on a joy wheel? The Gravitron has many fathers, and among them are all the amusement park rides that spun their way into our hearts. Along with the Merry-Go-Round, one of the first was the Joy Wheel.

Invented in the 1910s, the Joy Wheel was brutal, public, and amazing. Riders sat in the center of a disc, usually with a crowd gathered around. Then, the disc began to turn. Riders were flung off, petticoats flapped up and top hats fell off, and everyone enjoyed a brief moment of public indecency. As amusement park riders took advantage of new electric power and age old laws of physics, riders felt their stomachs turn.

The Rotor

University of Sheffield

The Rotor innovates on the nausea

There are many variations on the joy wheel, but the next big step toward the Gravitron was the Rotor. Designed by Ernst Hoffmeister in 1949, the ride was basically a Joy Wheel With a wall. But in a way, it inverted the formula while maintaining the basic mechanics. While Joy Wheel riders were flung from the center, Rotor riders were stuck against the wall.

Many Rotors had a public display appeal similar to the Joy Wheel, however. In fact, many amusement park operators marketed it for the lurid appeal of seeing young women lose their inhibitions thanks to centrifugal force. In a way, the Rotor was almost the opposite of the closed-in Gravitron spaceship. It was as much an attraction for viewers as for riders. Other rides like the Round-Up followed the same scheme. But a new marketing opportunity changed all that for good.

Space spins astronauts around…and an experiment begins

The Rotor was appealing, but space was electrifying.

Between the sixties and the 1983 patenting of the Gravitron, space exploration became a cultural phenomenon. From the artificial gravity in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the actual NASA training that occurred in high-speed centrifuges, centrifugal force was being portrayed in space. That may have appealed to the makers of the Gravitron. Though it was ultimately the decision of the device’s manufacturers, the choice to focus on a space theme points to a cultural shift. Instead of seeking wild experiences like those on the Rotor, people wanted wild experiences that were interstellar.

The Gravitron design is patented and history is made

Gravitron Patent

The Gravitron is an innovation in design and packaging, not technology (though some commenters have noted that the assembly and teardown times are impressive). It’s a piece of perfect marketing: a spaceship that makes you feel like you’re in space. When Wisdom Manufacturing patented the ride, they sought to patent its ornamental design. And that was enough.

Through the years, Wisdom Rides (founded by Jerry Wisdom and run by a man whose actual name is “Victor Wisdom”) pushed variations of the Gravitron formula, along with licensing it overseas. Though there have been accidents involving the ride, Wisdom notes in various claims that countless people have rode the Gravitron safely (tolerance for injuries is probably an issue of personal preference). Modifications ordered by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission were issued in 1992 after an accident at a Missouri State Fair.

The Gravitron travels into the future

What does the future hold for the Gravitron? The success of the ride is probably contingent on the success of fairs and carnivals. However, the space theme is probably here to stay, especially since parks can customize their own rides. Though the fair marketplace may change, one truth is everlasting: don’t eat before you go for a ride.

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