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Coney Island | Article

Technology with a Human Face


Coney Island had a slow evolution in the late 1800s, followed by a sudden flourish between 1895 and 1905. Indeed, so dramatic was the explosion that it is tempting to think of Coney Island as a time rather than a place. But why did it blossom when it did, and why was its most colossal phase so short-lived?

A critical catalyst was undoubtedly the Columbian Exposition of 1893, which introduced the concept of the Midway: an area segregated from the serious technological exhibits and dedicated specifically to amusements. One might also point to an expanding population in New York City in search of a sea breeze. But there was perhaps another factor at work: the technological innovations of the post-Civil War era were coming of age, and creating a multiplier effect. 

The 1870s had seen the invention of the electric light, the phonograph, and the telephone, and large-scale electrical plants were not far behind. In a wider sense, the world was experiencing a culmination of applied Newtonian science. By the turn of the last century, the principles of gravity, torque, rectilinear motion and the like were no longer the exclusive province of the serious engineer: the purveyors of pleasure could master and mold them as well. For the first time, railroad tracks could run amok as roller coasters, and so they did. 

This stage in technological evolution, quite apart from any rational plan, encouraged certain kinds of human experiences and discouraged others. Electricity and gears were interactive at a level that could be easily understood. The Human Roulette Wheel looked like it spun passengers, and when it did, passengers felt mechanical force acting directly on them. The various gravity rides tested the body's ability to withstand the forces of acceleration, while others presented the challenge of walking through a rotating, spinning environment.

As has often been noted, the stated purpose of many Coney Island rides was to give men and women the chance to touch each other. One might add that it allowed them to become exhibitionists. The technologies of the early 20th century invariably brought people together into crowds. As a result, a temporary society was created in which people felt free not only to act out their impulses but to be seen doing so. In this, Coney Island served an essentially dramatic purpose. It took people through a communal experience — an initiation rite, one might say, into the current state of the art of technology.  

If Coney Island could not have existed before the Golden Age of Invention, it did not fare well against later technologies, either. The illusion of movies delivered a withering blow to the amusement-park experience, and subsequent technologies did nothing to revive it. The automobile only allowed people to get away from each other more quickly than ever. Television shrunk audiences to the size of a family. The Internet, for as much as it encourages role-playing, allows the user to masquerade under the cover of complete anonymity. 

All of these recent technologies, to the extent they are used for entertainment, are departures from the notion of pleasure as expressed by the amusement park. Yet, ironically, people almost universally appreciate the glory days of Coney Island. What is it, then, that keeps us barreling toward a future in which such collective celebrations have fewer and fewer chances to thrive? Why do people today look back in jealousy on the improbable grandeur of Dreamland rather than creating a modern emporium to rival it?

Is it because people are simply too busy to care? Because they would actually prefer not to submit themselves to jostle of the crowd? Or did Frederic Thompson perhaps experience a twinge of prophecy when he gave Luna Park its nickname? 

Who is to say? There is pleasure, no doubt, in looking back fondly on a time that never again will be. But what we increasingly cannot know, as the original Coney Island passes from living memory, is whether or not the savor of nostalgia exceeds the original experience. As Adam and Eve engaged in acts that forced them from paradise, so too have their latter-day descendants moved on from their "Electric Eden."

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