The Defining Carousel of the Amusement Park Age

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The Dentzel carousel of Echo Park is a gorgeous example of the merry-go-round industry's early 20th century output

If there is a symbol of the genteel era before thrill rides came to define amusement parks, it is the carousel. Beautifully carved and painted horses twirl in a circle, moving up and down on shafts according to the steady rhythm of hidden machinery. The William H. Dentzel Company of Philadelphia built this particular carousel at Glen Echo Park in Maryland near Washington, D.C. It is one of 200 similar installations scattered around the country. The Glen Echo Park carousel features especially high-quality carvings by Daniel C. Muller, a premier craftsman of the time.

Carousels are a fascinating technology because they show how certain desires can be fulfilled through a variety of technological means. We have long loved to be driven in a circle atop animal sculptures! The idea of the merry-go-round precedes the industrial revolution, tracing its roots back to 18th century Europe. Early models were powered by draft animals and were little more than sculptures on chains that flew outward by the centrifugal motion caused by the rotation of the carousel. When steam-powered machinery came onto the scene, shafted carousels run by steam engines were built. As electricity diffused, it became the motive power of merriness.

The photographs of the carousel are a mix of black and white and color photographs from the Library of Congress' Built in America collection. In B&W, we get a glimpse of the machinery that drove the animal menagerie, while the color photos show off the carvings in all their painted glory. There are also several action shots drawn from other Library of Congress collections.The Echo Park carousel still runs seasonally. It opens for business around April of each year and closes in September.

The William H. Dentzel company still exists, too, though it has not reached its early 20th century heights. William H. Dentzel III and his children continue to build the amusements, sometimes, in keeping with the industry's long history of innovation, even powering them with solar panels. 

See more from our Built in America series including The Climatrona massive wind tunnel, a fallout shelter, and the Edison workshop.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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