Manufacturer(s): Imported, Maxwell, Orton and Spooner, self-built
Debut year: 1950
First UK produced: 1950s
Last UK produced: current
Total UK number: circa 30
Summary: Rotating drum pins riders to the wall through centripetal acceleration (centrifugal force). Originally built with extensive viewing galleries.
The Rotor provided a good crossover between a ride and show, a novelty in that the public paid to see people ride it. The earliest rides were built with a bias towards earning most money through paying spectators. The Orton and Spooner machines were colossal in construction with intricate viewing galleries resembling an ancient courtroom or Roman amphitheatre. Decoration of these rides was very succinct, the showmen and manufacturers were aware of the possibility of drawing in spectators rather than riders and so decorated the ride fronts with characters (predominantly female) pinned helplessly to the wall as their dignity goes out of their control. The rock’n’roll craze for luxurious and eye-catching female underwear, normally glimpsed by an admiring audience in the course of an energetic and acrobatic dance routine, was exploited fully on the standard artwork on a Rotor with glimpses of stockings and suspenders a prominent theme.
The ride itself was a scientific experience as riders felt the force of centripetal acceleration seemingly sticking them to the wall. What is happening on the Rotor falls in line with Newtonian physics in that a body in motion remains in motion unless acted upon by a resisting force. A rider travelling around the drum of a Rotor is constantly changing the direction of their motion but at any given point Newtonian laws state that they would prefer, if unhindered, to continue travelling in the direction they are travelling at that particular moment in time. However, every split second whilst the ride spins the planar vector that defines what is perpendicular keeps changing, thus the rider feels that they are being pushed outwards against the wall of the drum.
The sequence of the ride varied in the early machines. Some loaded at the top with the floor dropping as the riders are pinned to the wall and as the ride slows the riders slip ungraciously down to the floor and exit in the pit of the drum. Others saw the floor lower and then return to allow riders a bit more dignity as they left via the top of the drum. Finally some machines loaded at the bottom, pushed the riders up with an elevating floor, which then descended and re-ascended to pick up the riders.
Centripetal novelties did not arrive with the Rotor, in fact the ride can be seen as a modernised version of the early 1900s Joy Wheel, and the Rotor itself was re-invented later with the Meteorite and finally the Tagada, which in fact is just a modern version of the Joy Wheel.
Whilst the science of the ride is slightly confusing, the history of the ride in the UK is a minefield of odd imports, refurbishments, rebuilds and missing information. The arrival of the Rotor in the UK isn’t easy to pin down, either in terms of dates or in terms of who did what. A very early machine is suggested as being open at New Brighton as early as 1948 but as the 1950s arrived we saw the Rotor hit the UK with a real (not apparent) force.
North East showman William Noble made a travelling debut with an imported Dutch Rotor for the Town Moor Fair in 1951. Noble in fact had two machines, which, when fully built up, appeared almost identical. The rides were never seen together at the same time and many enthusiasts assumed the existence of just a single machine. Noble, having a hand in the burgeoning parks business in the North East, was quite comfortable with two machines which were well-suited to a seaside location. By March 1959 he was advertising both machines for sale, these machines were often referred to as being built by Maxwells of Musselburgh. The truth was more likely that Maxwells was involved in refurbishing many of the large and cumbersome Dutch Rotors for UK showmen. A for sale advert from 1953 describes the ride as being 38 foot diameter with extensive viewing galleries. As stated, both of the Noble were decorated very similarly, though build-up pictures show them to be different in design with one machine having enclosed steps and the other having external stairways. The machines were sold at the end of the 1950s. One machine went to James Graham in the 1960s and then to Porthcawl in the 1970s. It spent a season at Great Yarmouth before returning to Porthcawl and its ownership isn't traced from 1977. Noble's other Rotor (with external steps) passed through dealer Jack Hammond and moved to Billy Manning's park at Southsea. The last recorded note of this ride was a for sale advert at the start of 1969.
Early imported machines also travelled with the Marshall and Farrar families, these rides had different designs and each had a multiple number of owners. Farrar’s machine went across to prominent Eastern Counties showman Charles Thurston but was laid up in the early 1960s, parts of the machine were said to be in the yard up until the late 1970s. Marshall’s machine was purchased by Charles Irvin, who had a stand at Blackpool Olympia in the 1950s and then, after passing through Jack Hammond, was owned by A.C. Whitelegg who seemingly retired the ride in 1960 as he replaced it with an Octopus. Its fate beyond that is not recorded with it being advertised for sale by Garry Whitehead, a partner of the Whiteleggs, as late as 1964.
The earliest reported Rotor debuted at the annual Olympia Christmas event 1950/51 with Pat Collins and Billy Manning presenting the ‘Ride-a-wall’. The inclusion of this novelty makes a front page paragraph in the World’s Fair, with a later remark that royal visitors the Duke of Kent and Prince Michael enjoyed a spin on the ride. A photograph taken in December 1951 also shows the ride at Wolverhampton with a 'Rolator' canvas sign and the appearance is somewhat squat with a strange artwork consisting of tumbling characters and trompe l'oeil stone walls. It is known, through photographs, that the machine was resident at Billy Manning’s park at Southsea throughout 1951 and also appeared under the Pat Collins banner at various back-end fairs such as the Birmingham Onion Fair. At an early point in it's life it appears to be 'Orton-ized' with a large flat false front and it had a twin machine also stationed on the coast, this time at Skegness. The original ride was resident at Southsea up until the mid-1950s whilst the twin machine moved onto the Butlin circuit and is recorded as late as the 1960s at Littlehampton.
The Battersea machine mentioned in the Town Moor report refers to the opening event in that same year, 1951. Battersea opened with a classic Rotor ride built by Orton and Spooner for Rotordromes and this huge construction became a landmark in the park. The World’s Fair of May 19th describes the ride as a “circular construction over 50 foot high with two spirals for continual flow of 700 spectators who look down into the rotating drum entered by riders through a side door. Constructed mainly of tubular steel and girders by G. Orton, Sons and Spooner Ltd, of Burton-on-Trent. Powered by a variable speed Keelavite Hydraulic Rotary Drive. Canvas by Gourock Ropework Co. Limited of Lowestoft. Entered by way of a handsome front. Present at the opening were the inventor Ernst Hoffmeister, and George Orton".
Hoffmeister was the patentee for the Rotor, putting in patent number 659605 specifying a lowerable bottom in 1949. Orton and Spooner worked closely with German showman Hoffmeister to develop and patent the Rotor. These machines were a true hybrid between a show and a ride, with the models built by Orton and Spooner constructed with huge and complex viewing galleries, reached by a maze of step and circular tunnels.
The ride remained in Battersea up until the 1970 season and it is not quite sure where it went. 1972 saw a replacement machine (slightly smaller) in Battersea which lasted a few years until the unfortunate closure of the park. This second Rotor was put in to storage at the EMI Elstree Studios before moving to Dreamland Margate in 1974 and then to Southend Kursaal to be rebuilt in the 1980s as a small travelling machine.
As well as designing the over-sized Battersea machine, the company built Rotors for promoter Max Myers whose name adorned the Battersea machine. Myers fought to introduce the Rotor to the United States and it is known that at least two more machines were constructed by Orton and Spooner to be exported out to America. In addition at least two further machines were used in the UK sea-side parks, with one machine bravely travelled by the always adventurous Pat and John Collins partnership.
Charles Silk is the organisational force behind Rotordromes and facilitated the building and operation of the Battersea machine. The name of Max Myers is seen early on the ride and he, a partner in Rotordromes, is seen as a useful point of publicity for the Rotor, though his aversion to self-publicity ultimately sees the dissolution of Rotordromes. Max Myers is profiled in the World’s Fair of 20/6/53 and is described as a swagman from fairs and amusements parks. He obviously saw the Rotor as his chance to make a step up and is reported as having machines built to tour the United States, though little is heard of him after that. American fairground historians quote both Myers and Hoffmeister as patent holders for the birth of the Rotor in the US, though it seems that any friendly relationships fostered under the tutelage of Orton and Spooner were quickly dissolved, as both partners went into infringement battles with each other. The general undertsanding is that the Velare Brothers gained the rights to build portable Rotors, using a Hoffmeister patent, whilst the Anglo Rotor Corporation (presumably Max Myers) used the Myers patent to build park-based stationary machines. Fast-forwarding briefly, it appears that Chance took over building US Rotors with a rather stale park machine, and the ride was eventually superceded by the US-built Gravitron - essentially a minor update of the Rotor theme using a sci-fi decoration. It can be assumed that Myers' fall out over the Hoffmeister patent impacted back into England, since by March 1954 there is a notice taken out in World's Fair newspaper declaring Max Myers no longer a part of Rotordromes Limited. Myers' name was removed from the Battersea Rotor some time after this, with the ride signed as 'Rotordromes Limited' and then later as 'Charles M. Silk'.
Eric Rendel, grand-son of Charles Silk, has recently been researching his family's role in the amusement business and contacted the Archive with copies of various correspondence between Mr Silk and Mr Hoffmeister. A revealing sequence of letters helps pin down the authenticity of the ride and the character of Ernst Hoffmeister as he meticulously planned the take-up of his ride around the world. Hoffmeister developed the Rotor at the end of the 1940s and travelled the attraction in his home country. It would appear that various copy machines were made, aggravating Hoffmeister who came across as a stickler for perfection and proudness in design. By the time Hoffmeister had joined forces with Orton and Spooner and with agents such as Charles Silk and Max Myers at the Battersea end, there were already a flow of these 'inferior' European Rotors heading in to the UK. Hoffmeister's major problem was that a poorly designed or constructed machine would decrease the viability of the ride as a whole, hindering its possibility of taking root as a worldwide attraction.
Correspodence between Hoffmeister and Silk concerns itself primarily with chasing infringers such as Noble (and an engineer called Gribben who is said to have been involved with bringing these inferior Rotors into the UK), Collins and Manning - all stated previously in this article as operating early Rotors. Further letters reveal the extending of Rotors into Europe and Africa, with recent research in the German magazine 'Kirmes Revue' suggesting that Hoffmeister moved to Canada in the 1960s to work with Conklin and Hughes on the Seattle expo Rotor.
Orton and Spooner were certainly at the heart of things in this period and other Rotors built by the company are known to exist, but their exact details aren’t apparent. Orton Rotors were present at Barry Island and the Kursaal at Southend-on-Sea, though these could well have been the same machine moving around. The Barry Island machine was probably the same machine that travelled with Pat and John Collins for some of the larger back-end fairs in the early 1950s. Finally it is said that an Orton machine was built for Wilkie’s management at Cleethorpes and that this machine possibly moved to Rhyl where it was eventually scrapped.
Finally, there were also early machines that seemed to have a uncertain beginning. Bert Cole completed a home-made effort, reputed to be a rebuild of an early Skymaster ride, which lasted in a fairly run-down state up until the start of the 1980s. By the time this ride was scrapped it had begun to resemble the 'shanty architecture' common to an allotment shed. Bernard Cole travelled a machine from around 1952 and this can be classed as the first UK-built Rotor, with Bernard and his son (Bernard) utilising ship masts, steps and lorry parts from ex war service vehicles to make the Rotor. The machine was then taken over by the Wynn family who operated the ride for over 20 years. It then passed to James Graham who swapped his large machine for this more portable version. He added a strong sense of flash to the ride and the Rotor stil travels in the section with showman Graham Sedgwick. A final surviving Rotor was purchased by John Adcroft from the Botton Brothers in 1977. The origins of this ride are uncertain because it travelled behind the 'screen' of the false front that the Botton Brothers used whilst they briefly owned RT3 from Pat Evans. There are a number of unproved theories as to what the Adcroft Rotor originated from.
The large structure Rotors from the workshops of Orton and Spooner and from the Dutch manufacturers were pared down in terms of lavish spectator structure as the show aspect of the ride declined in the 1970s. Surviving rides were predominantly stationed in amusement parks, whilst four touring machines served to continue the tradition of the Rotor on travelling fairs. A second generation of Rotors commenced in 1976 with showman and prolific ride-builder Tommy Matthews surprising many people by building a modern Rotor. This ride formed the blueprint for a rebirth of the Rotor craze with the Matthews Rotor opting for compactness and ease of travel whilst maintaining the crossover ability to ride or view. The Rotor sported a classic frontage with typically alluring artwork which has sensibly been preserved with the Fairground Heritage Trust at Dingles when the ride was revamped with a modern illuminated front.
The second 'modern' Rotor was built by Gary Penfold in 1984 which featured a similar design and décor to the Matthews machine, drawing on the old tradition of a saucy glimpse of body parts but updating the theme to a disco reference point. The 80s decade was seen out with a further machine built and travelled by Charlie Smith, and this machine saw a change in theme towards science in terms of force and magnetism, something that became popular with the modern-day Rotors.
The 1990s saw Rotors built by Robert Bentley 'Tornado', Bobby Remblance 'Revolution', Robert Bunn 'Energy Rush', Keith Carroll, and Joey Gess 'Planet Rock'. All of these machines were compact and designed for travelling, and still work on the UK circuit.
The next phase of Rotor history was carved out by the Reeves family who built a variety of machines in Scotland using a crew of established engineers and designers. Denis McDowall kindly recalls this period of ride-building with some first-hand recollections. The first of the Reeves Rotors was built for Irvin in a shed at Farmcross, Rutherglen, the ride is reputed to be the last fairground ride to be built in the UK in the twentieth century, being completed close to the end of 1999. Engineer John Rennie was involved with the design and construction of the ride and the Rotor debuted at Gavin Stirling's fair at Alexandria with Rennie in attendance most days adding finishing details to the machine. Hydraulics engineer David Bell redesigned the mechanics to allow the floor to drop quicker, since the family felt that this provided the biggest thrill on a Rotor. Advantages of the ride included a telescopic that lifted to create the viewing gallery with the roof wings doubling as a lift for the gallery floor. The ride proved a success and was bought by the Cullen family to break new ground in Ireland.
Gerald Reeves was next in line for a Rotor and is said to have looked at the remains of a Chance Rotor at Morecambe to salvage some parts. Gerald's Rotor was again built by John Rennie up in Scotland, using a shed on Clydeside Road close to the Glasgow Exhibition Centre. Once again David Bell completed the hydraulics and the ride utilised similar innovations in build-up from the prior machine. Artwork was completed by Sven the Dutch painter. Shortly after this ride was built a replacement Rotor was made for Irvin Reeves, using the theme 'Stratosphere', and the latest Rotor to be built by the now-named Reeves Fabrications is for Irish showman Stephen Kelly.
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