Cassidy: Silicon Valley innovator left legacy of fun and thrills
Karl Bacon was a quiet guy who never wanted much of a fuss. So when he died last month at 98, he almost slipped away from us without being noticed.
And that just wouldn’t have been right.
Bacon was a Silicon Valley inventor who did as much for the business of laughs, squeals and butterflies in the stomach as Bill Hewlett and David Packard did for the test instrument business, or Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore did for the business of computerizing almost every aspect of our everyday lives.
Like what? Like building with his partner Danny the Dragon at San Jose’s Happy Hollow Park and Zoo, among other things — which I’ll get to.
In 1946, Bacon and partner Ed Morgan opened the Arrow Development Co. in Mountain View. The two were a tight team who started out doing some machine work for HP and just about anything else that would bring cash through the door. Bacon was the math mind, a self-taught engineer who tended to figure out what needed to be made while Morgan concentrated on how to manufacture it.
Then Morgan got the idea that they could build a merry-go-round for the city of San Jose, which they did. Soon a man named Walt Disney was talking to them about coming up with some rides for a new park he was opening in Anaheim. They did that, too.
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Mad Tea Party, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, It’s a Small World, Alice in Wonderland, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion and
more.”They did most of the rides in Fantasyland,” says Jane Bacon, 87, Karl’s wife of 67 years. “They really didn’t know what they were getting into.”
She was speaking specifically of the flying Dumbos, which had a way of leaking hydraulic fluid in the early days, but she could have been talking about Bacon and Morgan’s career in general. Because in the end what the two did was nothing less than revolutionize the amusement park business.
Bacon and Morgan left the imagineering to Disney. The theme park would come up with the story lines and animatronic figures for the rides and the two men would figure out how to propel cars, boats and flying objects through the fantasies conceived by the Anaheim brain trust.
The engineering feats pulled off by Bacon and Morgan were revolutionary. They were the first to design a tubular steel rollercoaster (the Matterhorn), which led to their corkscrew designs (including what is now the Demon at Great America in Santa Clara) and ever more terrifying coasters. They invented the first high-speed flume ride. They devised the single-rail guidance system for car-based rides like Autopia. They designed Danny the Dragon, the beloved train ride at Happy Hollow. And they went on to build and sell rides across the country and around the world.
“They made a lot of major, and major is the right word, major contributions to the amusement industry,” says Paul Ruben, North American editor of trade magazine Park World.
The accomplishments of Morgan and Bacon embody the sort of innovation that can get lost in Silicon Valley, with its focus on the future. The men are from a time when inventors let their work speak for itself. But it would be a shame not to mark Bacon’s death with a tribute to his legacy. He shared with all great innovators the drive to do something that no one has done before.
Think about the millions of people whose lives Bacon’s work has touched. The generations of kids lined up for the Matterhorn. The piles of family memories of trips to Disneyland. I ask Jane Bacon about that legacy as she sits in her Los Altos home surrounded by sympathy cards. She says that’s not something Karl Bacon thought a lot about.
“They were really dedicated to the machine,” she says. “And they really wanted them to work. I don’t think they really thought about who was going to ride it.”
Of course, Bacon didn’t touch any lives more profoundly than those of his friends and family. A few of them gathered three weeks ago at the Los Altos home Jane and Karl Bacon shared for 61 years. It was a small group, the way Karl Bacon wanted it.
Morgan, 93, was there, and he wept. He wasn’t available to talk to me for this column, but he responded to my questions in a note he dictated to a relative.
“The most important factor is that Karl was a genius,” Morgan said of the origin of Bacon’s innovative drive. “Karl and I had an incredible respect for each other both personally and for each other’s abilities.”
Naturally, Jane Bacon wept at the ceremony, too. There were so many memories. The humble beginnings. The trial and error. The success. And Karl Bacon’s last trip to Disneyland eight or nine years ago.
Karl had had a stroke and was in a wheelchair that day, Jane Bacon tells me later at her home.
“He just sat there and enjoyed looking at it, listening to it,” she says. “He said, ‘It all still works.'”Â‰”
Yes it does.