By: Ian K. Seppala
The history of carousels is a long one. The globally recognized ride has ties to Arabian horsemen, French nobility, and steam power. This article will focus on the early history of carousels. Learn what takes a medieval training apparatus and turns it into the beloved amusement ride we have today.
The rides originate in the Middle East during the 12th century. Arabian horsemen would play a game involving a perfumed ball. This game was used as a training device, possibly to improve dexterity and increase hand-eye coordination while riding a horse. When Italians witnessed this game they gave it the name Carosella, which means "Little War". The Spanish would name it Garosello. Both nations would incorporate these games into training. The exercise eventually spread throughout Europe, including France.
King Charles VIII was the first French king to elevate these games to a regal affair. The greatest example of this would be Le Grande Carrousel, of 1662. Developed by King Louis XIV, Le Grande Carrousel included other games, food, and many forms of entertainment. Tobin Fraley's explanation of what the riders did to prepare shows how this game turned into the carousels we know today.
To train for this game, participants rode legless wooden "horses" placed on beams that circled a central pole. Riders tried to lance a ring hanging outside the perimeter of the circle, while a servant or horse supplied the rotation power. This primitive device seems to be the predecessor of the modern carousel and its game of "catching the brass ring".
This training would develop into the modern carousel over time. These carousels became popular for affluent families in Europe during the 18th and early 19th century. They were operated by hand or horse. These machines were either attached under the horse to beams in the center (similar to a steam riding gallery), or the horses would be attached from above. The horses would swing outwards, giving the nickname of the latter machines "Flying Horses".
The introduction of steam power is one of the biggest steps towards the development of modern carousels. England was the epicenter of such steam-powered devices. Engineers such as Fredrick Savage took designs from agricultural equipment to create a reliable and durable ride. The creation of steam powered machines allowed for faster rides that could turn a profit.
Carousels have continued to evolve since their first development. What began as a game of horsemanship has turned into an amusement ride for all ages. Next week we will talk about another aspect of carousels that changed over time, materials. Look forward to a discussion about Golden Age wood carvers and how the process of carving horses evolved with history.
Fraley, Tobin, Carol Bialkowski. Carousels: The Myth, the Magic, and the Memories.ISBN10:0962469327.
Anderson, Sherrell S. Carousel Horses: A Photographic Celebration. ISBN10:0762408472.
 There is some discrepancy in this. Tobin Fraley in his book Carousels: The Myth, the Magic, and the Memories states that these games began in 500 A.D. However, most scholars believe the 12th century is more accurate.
 Fraley, Tobin. Carousels: The Myth, the Magic, and the Memories. Pg. 7.