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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 13: The Falling Bullet - The Victorian Era Death Trap Never Built


This article is buried on page 114 in the February 21, 1891 issue of Scientific American magazine, sandwiched between articles on sugar cane roller regulators and controlling static electricity on printing presses. After reading you will know why they hid it.

“Here is an idea on the subject of which it is perhaps not without interest to learn the opinion of the public and which we recommend to American engineers at a time when work on the Chicago exhibition is about to begin. It concerns a class of matters in which habitual readers of La Nature are all particularly to fix an opinion. It is a question of a fact the great towers that are now in vogue would of realizing.”

Just before the dawn of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1891 came out of France the most hilariously bad-ass amusement ride project ever proposed: A 1000-ft free fall inside a 22,000-pound steel bullet into 180 feet of water.

The brainchild of a brainless engineer named Charles Carron, the “proposed apparatus” failed to take into account so many basic laws of physics as to render it an absurd joke on the 1891 readers of Scientific American magazine, who had the audacity to publish a straight-faced description of this Victorian death trap, and even recommend that American engineers consider its merit.

“Everyone knows the peculiar sensation that feels in falling vertically from a certain height in riding down a very steep hill in a sleigh and especially in descending in an elevator car that is set rapidly in motion. A rapid vertical fall is a source of physiological disturbances that are very keenly felt by many persons. If such a fall assumes an exceptional character of magnitude it will give rise to a mixture of desire and fear of exposing one's self to it that will constitute a new source of perturbations. These latter are of the same kind as those that a person experiences in rustic swings, toboggan slides, merry go rounds, the sight of abysses, etc.

Such is the field to be exploited.”

A ride that gives the “perturbations” of being stuck in a free-falling elevator from the top of Paris’ Eiffel Tower is similar to riding a merry-go-round? Count me in!

“A tower several hundred meters in height and a closed cage constitute the plant. The maneuver is simple. The passengers enter the cage which is afterward allowed to drop freely from the top of the tower. At the end of [a]100 meter fall the velocity acquired is 45 meters per second; at the end of 200 meters it is 65 meters and at the end of 300 meters it is 77 meters. Now the fastest trains make scarcely 30 meters per second and descents into mine shafts never exceed 15 meters per second.”

Imagine taking an elevator to the top of a 1000-ft tower (remember, Kings Dominion’s Eiffel Tower is a shade over 300 feet). Then imagine you and 14 other physics-ignorant masochists climbing inside a 9-ft high by 12-ft diameter bullet chamber and sitting in a circle of armchairs, with no restraints and no seatbelts. “Keep your hands and feet inside the bullet at all times,” the operator says as they close and latch the steel hatch. You are about to fall at 250 feet per second.

“In order to render this maneuver practical, it suffices to receive the passengers safe and sound at the end of the trip and to have it possible to rapidly raise the cage again. As regards the first condition, that may be realized without accident by giving the car the form of a shell with a very long tapering point and by receiving it in a well full of water of sufficient depth.”

Well now it’s starting to make sense. At least Carron realized they had to “rapidly” fetch the bullet out of a sufficiently 180-ft deep well of water after the free fall, so if the fall did not kill the guests, the inevitable compression drowning at the end would, if they could not get the bullet back up, and fast – but not too fast. How to retrieve an 11-ton steel bullet out of 58 meters of water without murdering 15 unrestrained riders or killing them with “the bends” is never explained.

“Mr. Charles Carron, an engineer at Grenoble, has analytically studied the conditions in which the punctuation of the water by such a shell would be effected, and the reactions that the passengers would have to support. The conclusions of this study show that there is nothing either theoretically or practically opposed to its construction and to its operation in falls reaching three hundred meters.”

Grenoble’s engineering program was taught by shaved Rhesus monkeys. It says so in the 1891 course catalog.

“The accompanying figures give the general aspect of such a shell capable of accommodating fifteen passengers falling from a height of 300 meters. The principal dimensions of the installation would be as follows: Internal diameter of chamber 3 meters height by 4 meters width; height of mattress 0.5 meters; height of cone provided with a series of internal cones set one into the other in order to prevent the air from being compressed in the chamber at the moment of immersion to a depth of 10 meters: total weight 11 tons: displacement of the shell entirely submerged, 30 tons: depth of the well which is in the form of a champagne glass with hollow foot (a form whose profile has been determined in such a way as to prevent the swell produced by the immersion of the shell from extending beyond the limits of the well) 55 meters: diameter at the upper part, 50 meters: diameter from the depth of 28 meters to the bottom, 5 meters: The passengers would be securely seated in arm chairs that exactly followed the contours of their body.”

Well, he certainly thought this through, did he not? Comfy, form-fitting arm chairs for the foppish French patrons. “Profiter de votre trajet.”

"This mode of high speed carriage for returning from an ascension of 300 meters would not fail through its originality to please a host of amateurs with a new form of excitement. It appears therefore to possess the wherewithal to tempt a bold builder."

Before we pay a “bold builder”, a few points Carron failed to consider that need addressing: What is the wind shear at 1,000 feet elevation? The safe operation of this ride is predicated on the almost impossible probability that the bullet will remain exactly vertical in its drop. A variance of one or two degrees at impact would cause the bullet to tumble once it smacks the water. Next – we have to assume the bullet interior is not pressurized, since aeronautics had not progressed to that point. So on the descent, with no seatbelts or restraints in an unpressurized cabin, the passengers would enjoy the ride either weightless or plastered against the ceiling of the bullet, then from the sudden vantage point of the floor once the bullet slammed into the water. Of course too, the loading platform operator would have to hose down the bullet compartment interior from the guest heads that exploded from the rapid decompressions and impossible G-forces resulting from the experience.

One solution would be to have the bullet free-fall down a winched cable that extended through the center of the bullet to the bottom of the water well. The bullet could fall down the cable, then once at rest at the bottom of the lake, the cable could winch the bullet and its dead, exploded cargo back to the top of the tower for the next load of insanely adventurous popinjays. But really, isn’t this suggestion just window dressing on a pile of garbage?

“Thank you for surviving the Falling Bullet. Please exit to your left down the tower elevator and enjoy the rest of your day.”

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