Circular Switchbacks

The Switchback (or Circular Steam Switchback) was a variant of the platform ride where both the platform and the track upon which the cars ran undulated as a series of “hills” and “valleys”.

During its time of popularity the way in which the Circular Steam Switchback evolved set standards for fairground roundabouts that are still in evidence today.

The spark that created the original idea for rides of this type has been puzzling historians for years, although the first machine emerged from the workshops of Frederick Savage in 1885, a year after American inventor La Marcus Thompson installed something called a Switchback gravity ride (an early form of roller coaster) at Coney Island (USA).

It’s all toastracks and steam power!

The development of the Switchback begins with the advent of steam power on the fairground and the idea of mounting an engine on a “centre truck” to provide the motive power.

The novelty of the Switchback guaranteed its success with the public. Passengers rode in “cars” often referred to as “toastracks” on account of their minimalist construction.

Public success sparked competition among showmen, who did everything they could to make their machine stand out. The Switchback began a trend for conspicuous opulence at a time when the British Empire was all pervading and Britain’s industrial power had no equal.

While fairground has always been about escapism the evolution of the Switchback embodied a fantasy element that was skillfully employed in enhancing the fairground experience of the public.

Elaborate chariots produced by Savage at Norwich, and embellished by the handiwork of Charles Spooner’s Burton-on-Trent workshop, began to emerge. The introduction of “Venetian Gondolas” to ride in offered working people the opportunity to dream dreams of luxury in a far away place that was a long way from the reality of their everyday lives. In time Gondolas would give way to replica Motor Cars and other manifestations of the “chariot” idea – but fantasy remained the underlying Switchback theme.

The feeling of luxury and opulence wasn’t restricted to the chariots and it quickly spread to the rest of the ride. Scenic artists created huge great canvas drapes that were hung around the base of the rides, hiding the ugly underworks. Portraits appeared on every available panel and board while carved mythical figures gazed down on riders and spectators alike.

The spinning frame that drove the cars was raised to form a very visible spinning top that was elaborately embellished with carvings and other artwork. Handrails were introduced around the ride’s perimeter and even the central mechanism employed to connect the cars to the spinning frame was festooned with ornamental brass and carved shuttering.

A “standing top” design was also introduced with pillars at intervals around the ride supporting a set of highly elaborate rounding boards. The whole was topped with a canvas cover (or tilt) that created an enclosed effect.

One peculiar footnote in the history of the Switchback was the Switchback Galloper, upon which Gondolas or Motors were replaced by horses. Quite why some felt the need to combine both rides is unclear.

Switchbacks were more than just rides, they were travelling works of art that became popular all over Europe. But all novelty has a shelf-life and few survived beyond the 1920s, as Scenic Railways took control on the fairground.