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Captive Flying Machines (100 Years): Maxim Biography

Despite his newfound status and connections in high places, Maxim was having great difficulty raising funds for the flying machine project. In an attempt to relieve his bronchitis, he spent the winter in the South of France, where he came up with an idea that would not only raise money for his research, but also generate interest in the subject of flying. He would design the “Captive Flying Machines”, a fairground ride that would simulate what he, along with all the other pioneers of aviation, was ultimately hoping to achieve – free flight.

The idea was based on an apparatus he had used (but not invented) to test the efficiency of wings. This test rig consisted of a large horizontal spinning arm, to which the model wing would be attached. As the arm spun, the wing began to travel at high speed along a circular path, allowing him to gauge the amount of lift it generated by studying the change in the angle of the arm to the ground. The Captive Flying Machines would simply be a much larger version of this test rig, using a series of passenger-carrying cars in place of the test-wing.

Note: The name “Captive Flying Machines” may seem a little antiquated now, and so may require a little explanation. The pluralised name derives from the fact that each car represented a separate “flying machine”, or aircraft. The word “Captive” refers simply to the fact that the movement of these “flying machines” is dictated by the movement of the ride’s frame, and do not literally achieve free flight. Although the name seems odd today, it was clearly intended to help boost the public awareness of “real” flying machines, even if it did lack something in terms of razzamatazz.  

He gathered a consortium of backers and formed the Sir Hiram Maxim Electrical Company and Engineering Company to handle the construction and operation of the new ride. The first ride was to open at Earl's Court in May 1904, but was first built at Thurlow Park in Norwood, where it was tested in readiness for the move to London. The ride that eventually opened to the public, however, was significantly different to what Maxim had intended.

The original idea was that each car would be equipped with working wings and ailerons, allowing riders the ability to control their “flight path”, making the car sweep and dive at will, much like the modern “Flying Scooters” rides (such as Pleasureland Southport’s “Mistral”). Besides making the ride more exciting, this was a very useful way means of generating interest in the concept and science of flight. Although this would undoubtedly have been spectacular to watch and thrilling to ride, the idea met with a series of problems that forced them to be abandoned.

One of the first riders during the testing phase was Maxim’s chief assistant, Albert Thurston, who later recorded that “Speed was increased until the centrifugal force was 6.47 times gravity. After a mighty mental struggle, I fell consciousless to the bottom of the car”. Obviously, knocking your passengers unconscious would not be good for ticket sales, and so the speed was decreased on subsequent runs.

Sadly, the problems continued as, like all the rides at Earl’s Court, the Captive Flying Machines would have to be inspected and declared safe by London County Council before it could be opened to the public. While council inspectors were watching a demonstration of the ride in action, a strong wind caught one of the cars, and sent it soaring far higher than anyone expected. While Maxim’s team insisted that such an event could never happen when passengers were aboard, the council refused to allow the ride to open until the wings were removed. As a result, the final version of the ride was a bitter disappointment to Maxim, who said that it had become “Simply a glorified merry-go-round”. In fact, the final version of the ride was very much like a larger version of the “Circle Swing” rides designed by Harry Traver in the USA at around the same time. (Note: Although no original Circle Swings remain in operation, Disney’s California Adventure does feature a ride called “Golden Zephyr”, which is very closely modelled on the Traver ride).  

Although the Earl’s Court ride was popular, it did not make the kind of money that Maxim and his partners had expected, thanks largely to a major breakdown that forced its closure in high-season. Maxim’s autobiography recalls, with a strong hint of annoyance, that his original design for the motor included a failsafe device that made the drive belt slip if anything went wrong, thus preventing the machine from being put under too much stress. Unfortunately, one of the ride staff failed to realise that this was intentional, and made his own unauthorised “improvements” to prevent the belt from slipping. Inevitably, when the ride was full of passengers, the clutch eventually failed, and instead of the belt slipping as was originally intended, the machine was put under tremendous stress and broke down. Not only did this breakdown cost a lot to repair, it obviously prevented the ride from taking money at what should have been its most profitable period.

Meanwhile, the Sir Hiram Maxim Electrical Company and Engineering Company also built new versions of the ride at several of Britain’s major resorts throughout 1904. Maxim had originally deemed that no more than two Captive Flying Machines rides would need to be built in order to fund his research, and the loss of money from the Earl’s Court breakdown may well have influenced the decision to build more. These included Crystal Palace, New Brighton, Southport, and of course, Blackpool. In 1905, Willow Grove Park in Pennsylvania opened another version of the ride, where no doubt Maxim would have been less than flattered to discover the park promoting the ride by describing him as “The Edison of England”!

The new versions of the ride did not try to reprise the idea of giving riders control of the car, and were straightforward copies of the version that opened at Earl’s Court, albeit with minor differences in size and cosmetic appearance. The Blackpool version opened in on August 1st 1904, and the grand stature of the ride would no doubt have had the same impact on visitors as Blackpool Tower ten years earlier, or The Big One ninety years later. It was owned and operated by Maxim’s company until 1921, when Pleasure Beach founder William George Bean bought the ride for £750, meaning that the ride was no longer operated on a concessionary basis. Since then, the park has done an outstanding job to keep the ride running just as it did in 1904. In fact, other than the very different view riders get from the ride, a “flight” on Blackpool’s Captive Flying Machines is almost exactly the same as it would have been back when the first riders took their seats on opening day. Even the original motor remains, and visitors to the Maxim Emporium (a gift shop located in what was originally an empty space beneath the ride) can watch it in action through a specially installed viewing window.

The only aspect of the Blackpool ride to have seen any significant change over the years has been the cars, which have regularly been altered to suit the evolving image of a futuristic aircraft. In the 1930s, cosmetic features like wings and propellers were added, as were wind shields that protected riders from the cold air. In the 1960s, to celebrate the dawning of the space age, new cars were added to resemble space rockets, and remain to this day. In 2003, the quaint “Pleasure Beach Airlines” livery was removed from these cars and replaced with new decals advertising the Ryanair website. How ironic that a ride intended to help fund research into the earliest of manned aircraft should find itself being used to advertise a budget airline a century later.

Like so many of Maxi’s projects, the Captive Flying Machine became plagued with commercial problems. Some of his partners in the company tried to sue him, using a loophole they had discovered in their original contract that Maxim claimed never to understand. Furthermore, a rival showman tried to blackmail his way into the company by threatening to fraudulently challenge some of the patents to be taken out on the machine, possibly in the knowledge that the contract for the Southport ride stipulated that the company would not receive revenue from the machine until the patents had been granted. Before long, Maxim resolved never to be involved with amusement rides again, but his haste to settle the disputes and leave the industry just seemed to cause more problems, "The readiness with which I parted with my money in order to disentangle myself with the objectionable characters connected with the Captive Flying Machines seemed to excite the greed of certain other parties who imagined that all they had to do was threaten a lawsuit, when I would part with any amount of money demanded".

It was a great pity that Maxim abandoned the amusement industry when he did, as he had further plans for his machines. On seeing the success of Water Chute rides, he devised a plan to build a variation of the Captive Flying Machines that, once in full flight, would tilt so that the cars skimmed through a pool of water at the bottom, before soaring up into the air. Such a ride would almost certainly have been a great success, but never saw the light of day. Incredibly, Maxim’s suggested that that he had designed a larger version of the ride, capable of reaching speeds of anything up to 65mph. Had this plan ever been realised, it would almost certainly remain the most extreme thrill ride of all time!

While Maxim had been diverted by the Captive Flying Machines project, he had fallen behind his competitors in the race to build a real flying machine. He prepared a new version of his machine for 1910, but this never flew as the ideas used had already fallen behind developments elsewhere. Seven years earlier, the Wright Brothers had flown their machine, the first that was capable of being controlled in mid-flight. Maxim did in fact meet Wilbur Wright, and agreed to collaborate with him, but their association was short lived, and their relationship seems to have been less than friendly.  

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