General Articles

"I’ll Shoot ’em Out of Cannons!”

People love to be scared to death by Norman Bartlett. He’s the world’s only fulltime inventor of carnival rides

BERT FRANKLIN June 15 1948
General Articles

"I’ll Shoot ’em Out of Cannons!”

People love to be scared to death by Norman Bartlett. He’s the world’s only fulltime inventor of carnival rides

BERT FRANKLIN June 15 1948

"I’ll Shoot ’em Out of Cannons!”


People love to be scared to death by Norman Bartlett. He’s the world’s only fulltime inventor of carnival rides

NORMAN BARTLETT, who is probably the only man in history to devote 20 years exclusively to the development of carnival rides, says he is just getting started. A restless, persistent man, he will know no peace until he has perfected a device which will shoot a trainload of 18 passengers out of a cannon.

The light of pure evangelism illuminates Bartlett’s ruddy features when he describes this ride, which he calls “A Trip to Mars” and which he hopes to produce for the next world’s fair, wherever that may be.

“I’ll build a tremendous cannon, just like a re .1 anti-aircraft gun with my attendants in Navy uniforms,” he explained recently, warming to his subject. “There’ll be a flash and a roar and a train on rubber-tired casters will shoot out from the mouth. We’ll do it with compressed air and the flash will actually have nothing to do with the initial charge. But the public will eat it up. They’ve been paying admissions for years to look at that fellow Zacchini, the human cannon ball. Now they can all be cannon balls. That’s the secret, you know.”

After plummeting from the cannon’s mouth, the paying customers will shoot off down a spiralbanked track on a simulated bobsled ride, then hurtle into a darkened tunnel. Bartlett intends to produce the illusion of traveling 1,000 miles an hour in this tunnel by a system of flashing neon lights which will appear to Continued on page 58

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be traveling past the passengers in the opposite direction at terrific speed. In another tunnel, similar lights will produce the illusion of dropping away and climbing, and in a third tunnel lights spiraling around barrel-shaped walls will give the illusion of spinning in space. Bartlett plans to throw in a fantastic view of Mars for good measure and by this time he hopes the customers will be thoroughly baffled, terrified and shaken to the very marrow. If they are, the ride will be a success.

Bartlett, who has a wide knowledge of the human capacity to withstand almost every conceivable form of gyration, figures that a good many of his ashen-faced, trembling Mars travelers will stagger right around to the ticket window for a second trip. They’d better. It will cost upward of $200,000 to build the device.

A hefty, white-haired man in his early 50’s, Norman Bartlett has been inventing amusement rides ever since he built a device called Leap-the-Gap in Winnipeg at the age of 13. Pleasure seekers from San Francisco to Copenhagen have been bounced, whirled, jiggled, gyrated and inverted on the two million dollars’ worth of devices he has conceived. Three of his rides have won the U. S. National Association of Amusement Parks’ plaque for the “most meritorious device of the year” —the Oscar of the trade. His Looper at Coney Island has commanded the highest admission fee on the grounds— 45 cents on July 4. His Flying Turns at Chicago’s Riverview Park produced such lengthy line-ups that midway concessionaires complained and the park built a special queuing platform.

Bartlett’s rides have grossed close to nine million dollars for their owners in amusement parks all over the western world, but Bartlett himself is not a rich man. He admits, somewhat proudly, that he is a not a sharp businessman. Of the 66 rides built from his plans he owns only one and doesn’t bother too much about that. Although he made $50,000 last year, he sank it all and more into developing a new ride called The Hurricane. So far he’s out of pocket $100,000 on this machine and doesn’t expect to get even for four years. This doesn’t worry him. He usually builds the first model or two of a new ride himself on his fiveacre Miami farm at colossal expense, then turns over the whole idea to a manufacturing company and contents himself with a small royalty.

“I’d sooner bring out a new ride than make a fortune operating a company,” he says. “I’d like to have 10 monuments left to me when I die and by that I mean 10 amusement rides throughout the world which will go on working long after I’m forgotten.”

Flying Bobsled

He has developed six different carnival rides in the past 20 years. This is a lot. There are about 30 standard rides now in operation and most of them are the sole efforts of mechanically minded men who have had one idea and spent the rest of their lives gathering in the profits from it. With Bartlett, creation comes before profit. No one else invents carnival rides full time.

Of his six rides, he counts only three completely successful: The Flying

Turns, The Looper and The Hurricane. The Flying Turns is a roller coaster without tracks. Bartlett has since renamed it The Lake Placid Bobsled, which it resembles, and has equipped it

with fake snow. The bobsled run, built on a superstructure 45 feet high, looks like a huge sewer pipe sliced in half and twisted this way and that. The trains, on casters, go whipping down the twists and spirals of the run, banking up past the perpendicular on each turn.

The cars make 14 vertical banks and eight spirals in 25 seconds and in the early days of the ride at Euclid Beach, Cleveland, women used to faint at the rate of 10 a night. But thrill seekers grow tougher with the years. The following year (1931) Bartlett increased the speed of the ride but the fainting fell off and by the third year hardly anybody fainted. This may explain why rides are getting wilder and wilder. All of Bartlett’s rides manage to hoist passenger cars 10 or 15 degrees past the perpendicular except The Looper which, to their huge delight, turns passengers completely over.

The Looper sold 50 models last year and is Bartlett’s greatest success. It consists of 10 wheel-shaped cages rolling around a circular track. Two persons sit facing each other in each cage. By tripping a pedal they can roll the wheel completely over, thus turning themselves upside down again and again. Everybody apparently loves to be turned upside down and the idea of being allowed to do this for oneself is particularly attractive.

There’s a gimmick in the Looper which Bartlett didn’t think of. When the people press the treadle to turn themselves upside down all their money and valuables drop out of their pockets. “You’ve simply got to have an honest operator,” Bartlett says. “Even at Coney Island, where they lean over backward to get you your money back, there’s $1,300 to $1,500 unclaimed at the end of the season—not counting the watches and things.”

Fast Mover

The Hurricane, which is Bartlett’s most recent and in some ways his most terrifying-looking ride, made its debut last year at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. At rest it looks like a Maypole with eight rigid arms instead of strings. At the end of each arm is a passenger car. The arms rotate and rise at the same time until they are standing straight out from the central pylon and the seats are perpendicular with the ground. The operator zooms the arms which keep whirling around the pylon, swinging up and down, pendulum fashion, as they whirl. The delighted passengers thus get swung around and around, in and out, and up and down, all for the single price of admission. The centrifugal force is so great that a glass of water sitting in one of the cars won’t spill a drop during the ride.

Bartlett had guaranteed to deliver the ride to the CNE for the opening last August. He almost didn’t make it. During the last two weeks he worked almost without sleep, paying his Miami crew of 30 men $3,000 in extra wages. He bundled the contrivance onto a huge truck and promised a bonus to have it driven nonstop to Toronto. It arrived in a whirl of dust the night before opening day. After the Hurricane went into operation Bartlett found the transmission wasn’t built to take the sudden changes in speed. He helped to run it himself and had a man standing by continually with a bucket of ice water to keep the bearings cool. He rebuilt the ride during the winter at his own expense.

Bartlett is a high-strung, restless man whose whole make-up thrives on speed. He seldom sits still, usually paces up and down while talking, rarely finishes a sentence before plunging into the next one. He travels 30,000

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miles a year visiting various carnivals and often rides a roller coaster five times running to get the feel of it. Periodically he buys a motorcycle and goes dashing off about the country for a few days with his wife in the sidecar. At high school in Winnipeg 40 years ago, he won medals for seven sprints and jumps, causing his school to change the rules the following year, rationing students to one medal each. Once he says he came within 2/5ths of a second of the world’s record for the 100-yard dash on showshoes.

Yet the rides themselves don’t really go very fast. A veteran photographer, used to estimating speeds, once insisted that cars on the Flying Turns hit between 50 and 60 mph. Actually they only reach 22. “If I’d done 50 the people would have been dehydrated by the centrifugal force,” Bartlett points out. The Hurricane cars travel only 32 mph.

At the age of 13, Bartlett built his Leap-the-Gap for the amusement of the neighborhood kids in Winnipeg—a sort of ski jump off which the sleds shot into space, some 20 feet above the ground. It was an unprofessional but highly successful ride.

Tough on Teeth

He had hardly completed this before he went ahead with plans for a Loopthe-Loop, in which a car runs down a track and gains enough speed to navigate a vertical loop in the track. He got as far as a model down which he rolled silver dollars successfully, but his father, a commercial traveler, refused to let him proceed farther. Years later, in 1938, Bartlett spent $2,000 building another model which he thinks he might produce for the next world’s fair. There have been Loop-the-Loops before (at the famous St. Louis fair of 1898) but they haven’t been too successful— passengers were forever having their teeth knocked out and their jaws broken because of the sudden speedups and slowdowns made necessary by the looping action. Bartlett says he’s solved this by putting a longer train in the Loop-the-Loop. The front part of the train won’t be able to slow down suddenly when it climbs the loop because the back part will still be rushing down the incline.

Bartlett, who left high school at the end of his second year to join a survey gang, has never had any formal engineering training. After the survey job, for a year and a half, Bartlett traveled an American carnival circuit, riding a motorcycle around the highbanked walls of a motordrome in a daredevil stunt. He found it boring, but later made it the basis of two amusement rides.

Back in Canada he joined the Army, soon switched to the Royal Flying Corps. Bartlett, who likes to think things out carefully before he plunges into anything, got kidded by his fellows as a “dream flyer” because he sat out in the training plane on the field for hours every day fiddling with the controls, while the others lounged around waiting for a break in the weather. When the skies cleared, he was able to break the RFC record by learning to solo in 70 minutes flat.

In England he started out to learn every known air stunt, but got pulled up sharply when he went into an accidental sideslip and crashed. He became a scout pilot, was in combat for six months, got shot down once but escaped without a scratch.

After the war, Bartlett took up auto racing and, in the early ’20’s, helped build the car that won a world speed record at Daytona Beach for a racing driver named Sig Haughdal, at 181

mph. He quit auto racing because he felt it “asinine to take so many chances.” Returning to Winnipeg, he married and became a car salesman, His salesmanship was such that in his final month he made $3,000 in commissions, but Bartlett quit the business cold to become a full-time inventor.

Bartlett’s inventing career really dates from the day in 1926 when he built a device called Kiddie Auto Ride for a Winnipeg carnival. The ride itself was simple: a series of small cars

painted to look like fire engines, connected together and running around an oval track. But on opening day Bartlett had to call a policeman to keep the crowd back. He thinks the secret of this ride lies in the dummy steering wheels which gave the drivers the illusion that they were operating the car, and in the noisy fire bells which the youthful customers could bang to their hearts’ content. The Kiddie Auto Ride still operates successfully at Winnipeg Beach.

Musing over his early success, Bartlett often says he should have stuck with this first simple ride and made a fortune. “Instead, I decided I’d try to figure out the best amusement ride ever built. I put up something to shoot at, I’ll tell you.”

Bartlett got financial backing from John Miller—a man who has supplied roller coasters to most U. S. amusement parks—and set out to build his first Flying Turns in Dayton, O. This is a huge device which stands 45 feet high The workmen didn’t take the thing very seriously especially when Bartlett built half of the first turn, cut it off short, and announced he would test the whole thing out by hurtling down the half-finished track (which ended in space) in a test car. First he walked down the spiral, daubing white paint on sections of the vertical walls, and predicted the car would ride up the wall at those points. Then he built an arresting gear to stop the car when it reached the end of the track and took the plunge. The car wheels crossed the whitewash as predicted and everybody stopped laughing. The action of these bobsled-style cars, which seem to steer themselves, still mystifies customers and Bartlett says it always makes them come back for more.

In the next 10 years Bartlett built 10 models of the Flying Turns, including one at Brussels (since moved to Copenhagen), one in Paris and one in Vienna, which was bombed out during the war.

A successful ride looks as simple and is actually just as tricky as a popular song. For every 19 rides built, amusement men now figure one will make the grade. “Hell, you might build a terrific ride and find the darn thing makes people homesick,” Bartlett says. “That’s going maybe too far, but strange things have happened.” One man once built a wonderful-looking ride called The Whirlpool, in which boats were whirled about in a tank. The only thing was it made people deathly seasick. Bartlett’s own Looper was operated at eight revolutions per minute in Chicago and caused nausea until Bartlett cut the speed down to six rpm. Bartlett has found out one important thing: people whirled about in a flat circle get sick, but if you break the circular path with ups and downs —as his Hurricane does—the feeling of nausea usually vanishes.

To have wide appeal a ride must be portable in these days of traveling carnivals. The average ride takes six hours to set up. four to tear down. Bartlett’s Hurricane, which weighs 13 tons, folds up almost like a deck chair onto a single truck and can be set up

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in three or four hours, taken down in two or three.

A wise inventor also has his eye on box-office receipts. The more people you can pack in per hour the better. Rides that take a long time to load and unload waste time and therefore money. Bartlett figured out a safety bar for the cars of his whirling Hurricane which automatically opens when the ride stops and does away with the need to strap people in. The Hurricane can be loaded in 15 seconds and carries 32 people on each two-minute ride— which means 900 paid admissions per hour. The Looper can carry only 480 an hour, but it costs only $14,000 against the $30,000 the Hurricane sells for. A good-sized roller coaster, which costs around $150,000, can handle 1,200 people an hour but Bartlett still thinks the merry-go-round is the best buy of all. A large one, selling for $20,500, takes 1,718 people an hour.

Bartlett figures the 10 best midway rides, on the basis of appeal, durability, repeatability and cold cash are the merry-go-round, the Ferris wheel, the Dodgem or auto scooter, the roller coaster, the Caterpillar, the Whip, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Fly-o-Plane, his own Flying Turns or Lake Placid Bobsled, and any one of the “dark rides,” such as the Tunnel of Love. It’s still too early to say whether or not his Looper and Hurricane will reach this status, but he expects they will.

Nobody has ever been seriously hurt on any of Bartlett’s rides. He is almost fanatical on the subject of safety. He tests all rides with a 1009r overload.

As an inventor, Bai*tlett is a man of considerable imagination. In England, he* had his assistants on the Rocket Speedway wear a weird hybrid uniform made up of RAF cloth and admiral’s gold braid. They got saluted by air-force rookies but finally took down their gold wings after Whitehall complained. In Dallas, at the 1936 Texas Centennial, Bartlett publicized the same ride by seating a bathing girl in a tub of water in the lead car to prove the water wouldn’t spill a drop. He once needed a crowd around his Flying Turns to get an early-morning publicity picture and assembled one quickly by bribing a man to threaten to jump off a nearby roof. He publicized the same device at the, Chicago Cent ury of Progress Exposition by running movies of the cars in action on a screen above the ticket entrance. He had a group of eight assistants whom he trained specially. Each time the movie reached the point where the train went over the first big drop the eight would whirl dramatically about,

point up at the screen and shout, “THERE THEY GO!” People just had to look up.

Right now Bartlett’s restless mind is crammed with new ideas. He is busy working out the details of a new ride called the Float-O-Drome which he hopes to have ready for the 1949 Canadian National Exhibition. Bartlett won’t say much about it except that it is based on a completely new principle. Other new ideas he has in mind, he says, would require a world’s fair to put them across. A world’s fair, which needs novelty, can support certain rides which wouldn’t go over in amusement parks because of their cost and short-term value. One of these is his Humpty Dumpty, which he has never built. It would consist of egg-shaped cars running on casters and rolling about on a giant saucerlike base which would raise and lower and whirl about at various speeds. This would supply the motive drive for the cars which would run around on the saucer like beans on a plate.

He has another idea for a dark ride called Adventure. In this ride, cars would move about on corkscrew tracks in a pitch-black room, with neon lights to give his customers the impression that they were being turned upside down—an impression that customers seem to enjoy, in a grotesque sort of way. Adventure will have a principle which Bartlett calls “social security”: the female customers will sit in the male customers’ laps.

Bartlett has nothing but friendly interest for his carnival customers, perhaps because he is such a good carnival customer himself. He and his wife have ridden every conceivable type of ride and Harriett soon hopes to buy his own plane so he can fly from carnival to carnival in the summer.

“People like to act like cowboys,” he says. “When they get on that Hurricane and we start to zoom it they yell,‘higher! higher!’ Then I get them up past the perpendicular so they begin to stand on their heads and suddenly they shut up.

“But the way I feel about it, every human being is born with the same restless spirit of adventure that people of olden times used to have in the days of Daniel Boone and Fenimore Cooper. They feel like going places and doing things—especially the people in the cities who want to find some way to satisfy that natural craving for action. Why, to them the amusement ride is synthetic adventure and I think it really does them some good, because when you overcome fear it builds up a feeling of confidence which you can’t get any other way.” ★