How Velocipede Carousels Work

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus
The velocipede carousel in Paris' Bercy neighborhood is one of just two left in the world.
Patrick Janicek/Flckr

One of the most beloved rides at any carnival or fair is the carousel, or merry-go-round. A menagerieof animals, often horses, is mounted on a circular platform. As the platform slowly turns around and around, each animal glides up and down a pole. A few of the animals may be stationary, for those who prefer it. The ride is safe, gentle and appeals to young and old alike. The velocipede carousel was slightly different.

Carousels trace their roots back to a game played by Arabian and Turkish horsemen in the 1100s. In the game, which Spanish crusaders brought back to Europe, men would race on horseback, lances in hand, trying to spear a tiny ring hanging from a tree limb. Fast-forward to the 18th century, when a Frenchman decided youth should be trained in ring-spearing. To help them out, he created a device where carved horses and chariots, hanging from chains, were hooked together from a center pole. From this device the modern carousel, or merry-go-round, evolved. A precise date for the first modern carousel isn't known, but they were relatively common in Europe by the late 18th century [source: International Museum of Carousel Art]. Initially carousels were powered by men or animals, then steam and finally electricity [source: Cohen].


In the late 19th century, the velocipede carousel debuted. This carousel moved by people-power: Each rider used bicycle-type pedals to collectively move the ride. As people pedaled in unison, the entire set of figures circled the platform. The pedals were set so that you had to pedal together, at the same speed, like riding a tandem bike. If you couldn't keep up, you could lift your feet up off the pedals and enjoy a ride compliments of your neighbors' sweat. Because a lot of young kids wouldn't be able to help pedal, velocipede carousels contained some raised, pedal-less seats.Some velocipede carousels were also built so they could be pedaled backward [source: Cohen].

Unfortunately, velocipede carousels were a short-lived phenomenon likely because people preferred the ease of mechanical power over their own muscle. By the early 20th century, they were largely gone.More interesting than their short longevity may be the impetus behind their creation.


What Started the Velocipede Carousel?

Fashionably dressed men take lessons at Johnson's Pedestrian Hobbyhorse Riding School in the Strand, Westminster, London, 1819. The hobbyhorse was the forerunner of the bicycle.
Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images

No one knows for sure when the very first velocipede carousel was created, although it was around the mid- to late 19th century [source: The University of Sheffield].At that time, foot power was gaining popularity. Back in 1817, Germany's Karl Drais had invented a precursor to the bicycle called a running machine, hobby horse or Draisine, among other names. A heavy wooden contraption, it featured two wheels in alignment, a seat and steering mechanism akin to today's handlebars. There was no drivetrain; people operated it by pushing along the ground with their feet [source: Hoefer]. In 1863, the "bone shaker" debuted, more bicycle-like in that the front wheel sported pedals so riders' feet didn't touch the ground. A few years later, in 1870, the "high-wheeler" was unveiled. With a giant front tire and tiny back one, this looked less like today's bikes than the bone shaker, but was the first machine to be called a bicycle. It was also the first to sport rubber tires [source: Mozer].

It was this era that birthed the velocipede carousel. But not simply to jump in on the bike craze of the day. Its creation was supposedly due to Parisians and their love of horses. At that time, Parisians still loved getting around via horse. Despite the bicycle's growing popularity around the world as an alternate mode of transportation, Parisians weren't cottoning to the idea of stabling old Nellie so they could cycle around town instead [source: Palermo].


But authorities wanted them to try. The world was rapidly modernizing, and the use of horses in large cities was pretty much a thing of the past. Horses continually pooped in the streets, for one thing. Plus they attracted flies, could be smelly and were getting in the way of modern conveyances such as trolleys and cable cars. Bicycles, on the other hand, were a clean form of transportation, thus more preferable.

But the Parisians were wary of the new "bicyclettes," and nervous about riding the wobbly things. To encourage them to give it a try, the velocipede carousel was unveiled. Carousels were popular and fun and safe. Get Parisians to climb aboard a beloved carousel tricked out with pedals, and they would soon see how safe and fun riding a bicycle could be [source: Rohan]. Whether or not velocipede carousels truly helped move Parisians from the saddle to the, er, saddle, may not be known.But horses did disappear from the streets of Gay Paree, and Parisians did grow to love bicycles and bicycling. The country hosts the Tour de Franceevery year, after all, and it finishes along Paris' Champs-Élysées, probably the world's most famous avenue.


The World's Last Remaining Velocipede Carousels

Just two velocipede carousels remain in the world today. One is in France, while the other is part of a traveling collection of vintage amusement park rides. The velocipede carousel in France resides at the Musée des Arts Forains (Museum of Fairground Arts) in Paris' Bercy neighborhood. The museum, opened in 1996, comprises a colorful jumble ofcarousels, carnival rides and games from the 1850 to 1930 time period. The beautifully restored pieces were collected by a man named Jean-Paul Favand; his collection is one of the largest such private collections in Europe. Luckily for the rest of us, Favand turned his collection into a museum so everyone could enjoy it. Even better, the rides in his collection aren't simply on display, they're still operative. So yes, if you head to the museum, you can pedal his 1885 velocipede carousel [sources: Thomas, Robertson]. Two interesting points about his velocipede carousel: while French carousels all run counterclockwise, this one runs clockwise because it was operated in Great Britain, where that direction was the norm.This velocipede carousel was also featured in the 2011 film "Midnight in Paris," directed by Woody Allen[source: Rohan].

The world's other remaining velocipede carousel is part of Fête Paradiso, a similar group ofvintage rides, carousels and various other carnival components. Frenchmen Francis Staub and Régis Masclet, rabid collectors of old carnival rides and art, purchased the pieces and came up with the idea of traveling around the world with them, reminiscent of the carnivals of yesteryear. Fête Paradiso was set up for several weeks at a time in various locales, beginning in 2013 [source: Rohan].


The copper-and-iron velocipede carousel in the Fête Paradiso collection was created in 1897 and used in the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower was also unveiled [sources: Nikola Tesla, a famous inventor known for his contributions to alternating current electricity, is said to have provided the engines for this particular velocipede carousel,which can move both forward and backward[source: Cohen]. At some point over the years, an electrical engine was added to the carousel, negating the need for feet to power it along. Today, however, that's the point of riding on it. Luckily, the engine can simply be turned off to allow it to once again be operated by people [source: Rohan].

In 2015, Fête Paradiso reportedly closed permanently, according to their Facebook page. The fate of its velocipede carousel is unknown.


Other Vintage Amusement Park Rides and Games

A carousel sits near the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Tony Burns/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

While the velocipede carousel is unique in its incorporation of human power, other vintage amusement park rides are appealing simply because they're a bit different than what we typically see today. One example is Rowboat Swings. The Fête Paradiso collection contains some that date to the 1930s. This "ride" is basically a set of traditional swings, where one person pushes another. Instead of the swingers sitting in a bench, bucket or strap seat, however, they sit in a boat. Another vintage ride owned by Fête Paradiso is the Flying Chair. One version is pint-sized for kids, while another contains larger seats for adults. Unlike today's colorful, plastic seats, the vintage ride features posh red-velvet ones [source: Cohen].

Only six Caterpillars are still in existence today. This ride, found at most American amusement parks in the mid-20th century, features two-seater cars that run around a circular, undulating track. As the cars zip along the track, a canopy slowly envelops each one until all cars are covered. For those watching, the string of covered cars looks like a caterpillar inching along. To add to the fun, bursts of air would randomly puff into the cars to startle riders. Of the six Caterpillars left today, only three still have an operating canopy [source: Entertainment Designer].


An interesting vintage carnival game still in existence, also part of the Fête Paradiso collection, is the Music-Hall Ball Guzzler. This 1934 wonder consists of several hand-carved and hand-painted heads with mouths that open and close. The heads are caricatures of celebrities from that era, like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Their mouths are operated from behind, by hand. Players grab fake apples and try to chuck them into as many mouths as they can. In the past, if you got five in before the mouths shut, your reward was a bottle of wine. (The game was created in western France, not surprisingly) [sources: Rohan, Cohen].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Velocipede Carousels Work

I've never ridden a velocipede carousel, but the concept resonates with me. In the 1960s, when I was a preschooler, my family occasionally went to a local amusement park. My favorite ride wasn't the toy boats or the tiny airplanes, but a simple track where kids peddled tiny bikes with their feet. It's fun to "help" the ride a bit.

Related Articles

  • Cohen, Alix. "Fête Paradiso – Out of Time Into Imagination." Woman Around Town. July 26, 2013. (June 13, 2015)
  • Court, Kala. "Six Beautiful Carousels of Paris." Untapped Cities. Jan. 24, 2013. (June 17, 2015)
  • Entertainment Designer. "Forgotten Amusement Park Rides: The Caterpillar." Dec. 9, 2011. (June 20, 2015)
  • Facebook. "Fête Paradiso." (June 18, 2015)
  • Hoefer, Carsten. "The Hobby Horse: 1817 - Karl Drais and his running machine." Crazy Guy on a Bike. Aug. 28, 2006. (June 25, 2015)
  • International Museum of Carousel Art. "A Brief History of the Carousel." (June 17, 2015)
  • Lightning Magic. "Carousel Facts." (June 18, 2015)
  • Maranzani, Barbara. "7 Things You May Not Know About the 1893 Chicago World's Fair." History. May 1, 2013. (June 18, 2015)
  • Mozer, David. "Chronology of the Growth of Bicycling and the Development of Bicycle Technology." International Bicycle Fund. (June 25, 2015)
  • Palermo, Elizabeth. "Who Invented the Bicycle?" Live Science. April 10, 2014. (June 18, 2015)
  • Robertson, Joanna. "Paris, an enchanted city of carousels." BBC News. Dec. 23, 2012. (June 18, 2015)
  • Rohan, Virginia. "French carousel and carnival rides come to Governors Island." North Jersey. July 28, 2013. (June 13, 2015)
  • The Library of Congress. "Paris Exposition of 1889." March 28, 2011. (June 18, 2015)
  • The University of Sheffield. "National Fairground Archive." (June 18, 2015)
  • Thomas, Vivian. "Holiday Sparkle at the Musée Des Arts Forain." France Today. Dec. 19, 2012. (June 13, 2015)