During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, amusement parks were popular destinations, especially for the working class, who sought a distraction from their daily jobs. Touted as one of the best amusement park attractions, the Traver Circle Swing was enjoyed by millions in the early 1900s, from Luna Park at Coney Island to White City in Chicago to Electric Park in Kansas City. The Street Railway Journal of October 1908 noted that the swing "never lacked patronage and certainly gets its fair share of business.”
Inventor and engineer Harry Guy Traver (1877–1961) specialized in developing distinctive amusement rides, especially roller coasters. He also created an “amusement apparatus” with C. W. Nichols, patented in 1904 (US Patent 758,341), that became known as the Traver Circle Swing. The main objective of the patent was “to provide the occupants with the pleasurable sensation of the ordinary roundabout with increased speed and gradual rise from and return to the ground.” The swing simulated the experience of flying, a popular interest at the time, and provided an aerial thrill to its riders.
As seen in an ad for the Traver Circle Swing, the device was a triangular-shaped tower constructed of heavy steel, with a central shaft from which a series of radiating arms made of steel cables carried cars, baskets, or boats (airships). Built approximately sixty to eighty feet high, the swings/cars were elevated approximately twenty to twenty-five feet from the ground and moved at about twenty-five to thirty miles per hour. The largest Traver Circle Swing manufactured carried forty-eight passengers. To attract attention, the towers were illuminated with electric lamps in the evening and flags during the day. The cost of installing a Traver Circle Swing was approximately $4,500. According to the Souvenir Guide of Coney Island, Where to Go, What to See, and How to Find It (1905) a circle swing ride lasted approximately five minutes and cost ten cents.
In the United States Investor of April 16, 1904, a writer asked if buying stock in the Traver Circle Swing Company was a solid prospect for investing. The answer was, “according to the calculations of the promoters the net profits for the first year should reach $100,000, but it remains to be seen how favorably the idea will be received by the amusement-seeking public. We are inclined to the belief that they are overoptimistic, the stock is purely speculative and is selling at a much higher price than present conditions warrant.” The Investor advice proved to be wise.
According to an article published in Billboard on November 30, 1907, the Traver Circle Swing Company went bankrupt and J. W. Ely purchased the tangible assets, which included “nineteen swings in various parks throughout the country, half interest and royalties in six other swings, and possession of all patents and the office furniture.” The sale also included a park concession contract which detailed the sale percentage and noted that free motor and lighting current was included.
Traver popularized the circle swing and it became a standard ride found at almost every amusement park. This led to the construction of swings by other manufacturers to provide similar experiences, such as the Revolving Airship Tower of Chicago; the Whirling Star, built by the National Concessions Company of Chicago; and the Aerostat Swing, made by the Federal Construction Company of Chicago. About 1928, Traver also offered the seaplane deluxe swing.
Traver trained as a machinist and mechanical engineer while working with the General Electric Company in 1898 and later at the Denver Tramway Company. He founded the Traver Circle Swing Company of New York in the early 1900s and then the Traver Engineering Company which fell apart during the Great Depression. In the postwar years, Traver reestablished his amusement ride business and formed Traver Enterprises. The Sea Swing, featured here, was similar to Traver’s circle swing, but dipped into the water as the swing moved in a circular motion providing the rider with an aerial thrill and cooling off. It was advertised as a “safe, sane and sensible ride” that was “fully protected by patents.”
Traver’s portfolio of amusement rides is extensive; some highlights include a car from 1905 (US Patent 790,989) intended for use with his circle swing (US Patent 830,687) of 1906. Later patents included apparatuses that moved in a circular motion and included: a roundabout (US Patent 830,868) in 1906; an amusement apparatus of bird shaped cars (US Patent 842,276); a 1907 trolley amusement (US Patent 854,185); a go-kart (US Patent 930,326), which relates to a portable rocker/chair for babies in 1909; an amusement device (US Patent 1,065,642) designed to provide "a unique whirling motion which will give unusual sensations of Surprise and pleasure"; and a collapsible passenger-carrying car for aeroplane swings (US Patent 1,436,371). In 1929, Traver patented an “amusement ride” embodying a track structure arranged with dips, rises, and curves and along which passenger-carrying cars moved by gravity (US 1,713,793). We know this as a roller coaster—something Traver would continue to create for the remainder of his inventive career.
For more information about amusements, visit the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Series: Amusements and the Frederick and Mary Fried Folk Art Archives in the Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Billboard, November 16, 1907.
Billboard, November 30, 1907.
Electric Railway Journal, Volume 33, January 30, 1909.
Jacques, Jr., C.J. “Harry Traver: Ride Innovator and Showman,” Amusement Park Journal, 3 (1981): 11.
Jacques, “Harry Traver's Small Rides,” Amusement Park Journal, 2 (1980): 8.
Mohun, Arwen P. "Amusement Parks for the World: The Export of American Technology and Know-How, 1900-1939," Icon, Vol. 19, Special Issue, Playing with Technology: Sports and Leisure (2013): 100–112.
New York Times, September 27, 1961.
Pursell, Carroll. "Fun Factories and: Inventing American Amusement Parks," Icon, Vol. 19, Special Issue, Playing with Technology: Sports and Leisure (2013): 75–99.
Street Railway Journal, February 23, 1907: 331–333.
United States Inventors 15, April 16, 1904.