27 June 2011

The Entertainers: Mathematical Water Theater

By Lisa Marie Wilkinson

The Cyclone at Coney Island

Six Flags Magic Mountain

Essex House of Wonders

Winstanley’s Water Works

If the last two amusements/entertainments on the list aren’t familiar to you, it’s because you’re living in the 21st century.

Those seeking entertainment in the Piccadilly area of 1690’s London could view attractions featuring fireworks, fountains and assorted clever gadgets at the Mathematical Water Theater known as “Winstanley’s Wonderful Water-Works.” Spectacular water and fireworks displays were staged by owner inventor/engineer Henry Winstanley and his wife Elizabeth, and the exhibit included such mechanisms as the “Wonderful Barrel,” a unique piece of equipment that dispensed both hot and cold drinks to visitors.

An English businessman and engineer who studied engraving, architecture, and clock-making, Winstanley (March 31, 1644-November 27, 1703) developed a perpetual motion mechanism that was still in popular use generations after his death. He filled his own home and garden at Littlebury in Essex with hidden passages, warped mirrors, and his own mechanical and hydraulic gadgets and inventions. The carnival-like atmosphere contained mechanical wonders that included a “flying chair” (an early incarnation of the roller coaster) and curious chairs with arms that would immediately imprison any hapless visitor who sat down in them, requiring the trapped unfortunate to wait to be extricated from the contraption by an attendant. The “Essex House of Wonders” became a local landmark, attracting members of the royal court as well as local denizens.

Winstanley invested his profits from the
Mathematical Water Theater in ships, and after incurring losses when two of his ships were wrecked upon the infamous Eddystone rocks off the southern coast of England, he decided to take action by designing and funding the construction of the famous Eddystone Lighthouse, the very same structure that was swept from the Eddystone rocks during the Great Storm of 1703.

Alas, Winstanley and a crew had journeyed to the lighthouse on the day of the storm to effect repairs to the structure, and Winstanley and his crew perished in the storm.

The Mathematical Water Theater continued to operate successfully for several years after the death of its owner/creator, and no doubt inspired many of the spectacles and attractions featured in modern amusement parks.

Lisa Marie Wilkinson is an IPPY Gold Medal winning author of historical adventure-romance. Her latest novel, STOLEN PROMISE, featuring vibrant Gypsy characters and breath-taking romance, is available now.