The Lightning

That bizarre steel umbrella is the Parachute Jump at Coney Island, a ride constructed for the 1939-1940 World’s Fair (where it was the second tallest structure, behind the Trylon) and moved from Flushing Meadows Park to Coney Island after the fair closed. The ride itself has been closed since 1968, but it is visually as important a symbol of Coney as the Cyclone rollercoaster.

The jump was based on actual training structures for military parachuters – the overall design came from James Strong, a retired naval Commander, who had designed and patented a method for practicing parachute jumps without risk; the direction that his firm took, from military consultancy to amusements, cannot be better summed up than the fact that the firm’s name was changed from American Armament Corp. to Safe Parachute Jumps, Inc. The early versions had two arms each holding a seat so that two people could “jump” at the same time; the version designed for the fair had twelve locations, each with a double seat. The main cables hauled the seat up and acted as a safety when it was dropped; secondary cables kept the parachutes open and the people from drifting to the side.

The structure of the main part of the tower is basically that of a radio antenna or transmission tower, reconfigured to a hexagonal plan to better fit the twelve-cable layout. The head of the structure is something else entirely.

The structural design of the jump was by Elwyn E. Seelye, an engineer who should be more famous than he is. He’s best known today for several books he wrote fairly late in his career and for the fact that his firm, 13 years after his death in 1959, became an integral portion of STV, a rather large civil engineering firm.

The pictures above are from the HAER report, written in 1978, after the ride closed. Here’s a photo taken between November 1941 and February 1942, by the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information, with the rather incredible description “The four freedoms. Let’er rip, and carefree couples glide earthward from the top of Coney Island’s famous parachute jump. Not shown are the milling crowds below, who enjoy the carefree screams of the people on the chutes as much as the brave chutists themselves.” Apparently going to an amusement park counted as part of the war effort.

Finally, some footage of the jump in operation, from the world’s fair:


The title of this blog post is from Twain: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Structural engineers don’t get to the lightning very often, but it’s nice to recognize when it happens.

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