As development, Hurricane Sandy and other pressures continue to reshape Coney Island in the early 21st century, it’s worth remembering that its rise to fame as an urban escape a century ago inspired an amusement park craze across the country. In those days, the Brooklyn waterfront was a hub of invention for amusement park rides, and William F. Mangels was one of the most influential of the Coney Island-based innovators, an entrepreneur who reveled in tossing people together in dizzying thrills.
Born in 1867 in Germany, Mangels immigrated to New York in 1883 and soon got his start in carousel engineering and manufacturing in the 1880s. Mangels imagined new ways for the galloping wooden horses to appear more lively using a crank system that made their hooves rise and fall from their stationary poses. He would go on to earn close to 50 patents, and he especially loved designing rides that threw people together in a physical manner that was somewhat scandalous for the time. Perhaps the most famous example was his popular gravity ride, The Tickler, invented in 1906. The ride consisted of hurtling chairs on swivel wheels, which descended a twisting path, bumping and turning along the way, tossing passengers to and fro. According to Good Old Coney Island by Edo McCullough, P.G. Wodehouse even took a ride on the Tickler, though it doesn’t make note of whether or not he was scandalized by it. Wodehouse said:
The principle at the bottom of Coney Island’s success is the eminently sound one that what would be a brutal assault, if administered gratis, becomes a rollicking pleasure when charged for at the rate of fifteen cents per assault. Suppose one laid hand upon you and put you in a large tub; suppose he then proceeded to send the tub spinning down an incline so arranged that at intervals of a few feet it spun around and violently bumped into something. Next day he would hear from your lawyer. But in Coney Island you jump into the Tickler and enjoy it; you have to enjoy it because you have paid good money to do so.
It might seem like bad luck for a ride company to have a name so close to the word “mangles,” but it in no way impeded his success–every park during Coney Island’s early 20th century heyday, from Luna Park to Steeplechase, bore Mangels’ mark.
One of the first companies to mass produce rides, W.F. Mangels Company sent the Whip to amusement parks around the country, with the nauseating, spinning ride popping up in hundreds of spots between 1914 and 1927. The company also created amusements with quick and peppy names like the Ziz, shooting galleries with whimsical animals and other colorful items for target tests, and the Rough Riders Coaster (which unfortunately lived up to its name, incurring some fatalities).
Mangels was an amateur historian of amusement park history himself, and started The American Museum of Public Recreation in 1930, which stood on 8th Street in Coney Island and displayed re-creations of historic rides and a collection of amusement memorabilia. In 1952 he published The Outdoor Amusement Industry, the first history of his beloved industry. The museum never quite caught on like the Mangels’ rides and closed after about a decade. Mangels died in 1958 at the age of 92 and was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and W.F. Mangels Company shut down in 1971. The building it once called home is now a branch for the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Yet W. F. Mangels’ vision of playful fun is still in evidence all over Coney Island. The last rides to be produced by his company were for kids, so it’s not rare to see a firetruck or pony cart ride branded with small “W.F. Mangels” plaques, such as two that are chugging along at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park near the boardwalk. There’s also the 1932 B&B Carousell (spelled with two ‘l’s as that’s how Mangels chose to spell it), which is now owned by the city and will reopen to the public following a relocation and restoration. A 1920s car from the Whip is on display at the Coney Island History Project, which was restored post-Hurricane Sandy; and a 1940s Mangels shooting gallery is being restored and its cast iron targets will be coming out of retirement. As for his own collections of artifacts from his museum, they were sold to the Circus Hall of Fame in Florida, although when that closed in 1977, they went into private ownership.
Even if most of his whiplash-inducing inventions are retired, Mangels’ influence on amusement parks is still with us. His early rides inspired greater and greater contraptions, leading to today’s towering roller coasters. Any amusement that tosses riders together in giddy motion is part of Mangels legacy. Next time you’re out for a day of mechanical spectacles, keep an eye out for the little plaques that are proudly stamped on each of his rides: “W.F. Mangels Co. Coney Island, New York.”
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