‘Science and technology… at the fairground? The fair, that’s mostly fun, right?’ When I tell friends and family about my research, this is a common reaction. And yes, science and technology did in fact play an important role at the fairground in the nineteenth century. Let me take you on a journey to times when there were not only merry-go-rounds and slot machines at the funfair, but science and technology were presented to the public as a great spectacle.

About 150 years ago, the fairground was indeed a place where people gathered to have fun – just like today – but also to meet each other, learn things, and keep up to date with the latest developments. In addition to a carousel – formerly powered by real horses – you could also visit medical collections, attend spectacular lectures about exotic countries and witness scientific demonstrations of the latest inventions such as the phonograph, microscopic images or wireless telegraphy. In primary sources, for example posters of popular attractions, we can see what was on display at the funfair at the time. The poster to the right demonstrates the versatile programme of such a fairground attraction, with elements ranging from X-ray demonstrations (‘Rayons-X’) to photography and electrical projections.

Spectacular science

It is important to remember that science in the nineteenth century was not only educational, but also entertaining! Think of the first moving images shown at the fairground: people were amazed and marvelled at this new visual environment.

Taking photographs also grew into a true fairground attraction in the nineteenth century, resulting in a real photograph the visitor could take home as souvenir.

Probably one of the most spectacular visual attractions was X-ray photography. Research sources have shown that X-ray photography was very quickly introduced to the funfair as the newest attraction. Shortly after the discovery of X-rays in 1895, there were already demonstrations and prints of this new technology. In its early years, X-ray was a serious competitor of early film as the most popular new visual medium. Lectures, shows and demonstrations were held to present the radioactive properties of X-ray photography to the wider public.

Technological innovations

We see a similar boom with other new technologies that took hold at the fairgrounds. Of course, the practicality of certain developments made for easier transport and economization of attractions, but technological innovations were also seen as attractions in their own right.

Electric lighting, for example, has long been explicitly mentioned on posters and advertisements as a spectacular phenomenon. In the salon-carousels , electric lighting was added to the luxurious ensemble of ‘beautiful wood sculptures, mirrors and paintings’ to give the fairground attraction even more flair.

Visitors were also presented with, for example, the ‘Wonders of electricity’ (‘Les Merveilles de l’électricité’) through scientific demonstrations, spectacular visual material or even theatre plays.

If you think about it, technology still plays a big role in public entertainment. Today, small roller coasters, claw machines or other mechanical attractions dominate the fairground. Light and sound also remain important: bright neon lights and fast, cheerful and uplifting music are still used to attract the attention of visitors.

Fairground posters as a starting point

For this research I will use different types of sources. Advertisements and posters such as those presented above are one example, but I will also study newspaper reviews, personal letters or official documents. In some cases, material remains such as attractions and media can be interesting sources as well.

Think of fairground organs, photographic equipment that was used at the funfair and the first film projectors (or cinematographs). Some of these devices are kept in the collections of museums and archives, or owned by hobbyists or private collectors.

I will therefore pay visits to archives, museums and scientific institutes, but also collaborate with private collectors and experts who are personally involved with the history of the funfair or overall fairground culture.

This variety will be a challenge as well as an opportunity to explore the phenomenon of the nineteenth-century funfair and the role of science and technology in as many ways as possible.

Find out more about my research here.

Are you or do you know (private) collectors or enthusiasts of fairground organs, carousels or general (local) fairground history? It would be much appreciated if you could let me know so we can get in touch: tim.overkempe@uantwerpen.be.