An Inventive Christmas Present and the First Pilot Trainer: a Brief History of Kiddie Rides


Incarnations of kiddie rides as we know them first started appearing in the 1930s. Two very different machines emerged in the USA at similar times, though both had an undeniable influence on the rides and amusement machines of today.

Those two inventions were:

The Hahs Gaited Mechanical Horse

Created in 1930 by James Otto Hahs, the Hahs Gaited Mechanical Horse was intended as a Christmas present for his children. Hahs was an inventor who came up with the idea on the way home from presenting a device to Heinz that peeled tomatoes with very hot steam. It was December during the Great Depression, so Hahs’ mind turned to an affordable Christmas present for his five children.

Hahs’ first incarnation of his idea was very different to how we picture kiddie rides today. It was like a beefed-up rocking horse covered in mohair and complete with a from-the-slaughterhouse real cow’s tail. Finished off with a real saddle and leather reins, it was dubbed Spark Plug by the Hahs children.

The Gaited Mechanical Horse was more sophisticated than a rocking horse. Instead of simply rocking because of the child’s motion, the horse was built to emulate a walk with a gentle pull on the reins, and a fast gallop if the child gave a hard tug.

The Hahs children loved Spark Plug and their enjoyment of the horse spurred Hahs on to build more horses to sell. Initially, he contacted woodcarvers to make the bodies of the horses – like carousel horses – however, this proved too heavy and expensive.

So instead he endeavoured to make them from aluminium that would be much lighter, but still able to be painted like wood. Hahs was told it wasn’t possible to cast aluminium pieces big and thin enough for his idea, but he used his ingenuity and invented a way. Once he’d worked out the design, the horses were manufactured at the Hahs Machine Works in Sikeston, Missouri.

In 1932, the Hahs Gaited Mechanical Horse won several national awards for most original invention. And after placing an ad in Billboard magazine in 1933, someone from Exhibit Supply Co. saw it and they entered into a successful deal to distribute it all over the world. Before the patent ran out, James Hahs made enough money from his invention to retire and provided the basis for modern kiddie rides in the process.

The Link Trainer

Edwin Link took his first flying lesson in 1920 as a teenager but was disappointed that even after paying $50 he wasn’t allowed to touch the controls. He gave up following the traditional method of learning to fly and was subsequently taught by a group of barnstormers.

In 1927 he acquired his own plane and attempted to make a living through charter services, barnstorming and flying instruction. Even after this, Link still found himself frustrated at the cost and current methods of learning to fly. So he did something about it.

He started developing a flight simulator, debuting its first iteration in 1929. Externally, it looked like a huge toy aeroplane with wooden wings and fuselage. Link used organ bellows from his family’s organ factory driven by an electric pump to simulate movement as the pilot worked the controls. The title of the patent for the device was “Combination Training Device for Student Aviators and Entertainment Apparatus”.

His “Pilot Maker” was initially met with indifference from aviation schools. However, amusement park operators were much quicker to catch on. As a result, many of Link’s first models ended up providing entertainment in amusement parks across America. And of course, proved to be the basis for popular simulator amusement machines seen today.

Link did eventually achieve his goals with the Pilot Maker. Following the US Air Mail scandal in 1933, when US Air Corps took over US Air Mail, 12 pilots died because of their lack of familiarity with Instrument Flight rules. This led to a search for new, effective ways of flight instruction, resulting in the Pilot Maker being picked up by the Air Corps as a safe and effective means of training pilots.


Elements of these two inventions can clearly be seen in the kiddie rides and amusement machines of today. In the years following, most kiddie rides fall somewhere between the Mechanical Horse and the Link Trainer, with vehicles being hugely popular. These partially simulate the real life movement of a vehicle (like the Link Trainer) but have been designed expressly for enjoyment like the horse.

A direct, but thoroughly-modern, descendant of the Hahs Gaited Mechanical Horse is the Go Go Pony Kiddie Ride, which emulates a horse race in a brightly-coloured fantasy world, combining the tactile experience of being on simulated horseback with the competitive reward of a video game.

Machines that borrow more heavily from the Link Trainer include the Video Game Simulator and Hurricane Simulator. Though neither is likely to teach anyone to fly, they do provide an immersive, action-packed experience for kids.

Do you have any interesting tidbits on kiddie ride history? Or any favourite rides of yesteryear? Get in touch and let us know anything interesting we might have missed.

Leave a Reply