Although roller coasters might seem like a relatively newish phenomenon of the modern age, the thrill rides have a lengthy history that goes all the way back to Russia in the 17th century. The roller coaster in its present form, however, is a significantly newer concept.
Russian Ice Slides
The ancestors of modern roller coasters first appeared in Russia as precipitous slides made of wood and covered with ice, sending a rider seated on a sort of bench or sled swiftly toward the ground. These ice slides were particularly common in the St. Petersburg area. Beginning in the 1600s, ice slides became popular with wealthy members of Russian society, and even Empress Catherine the Great had her own personal slide in the 18th century. Ice slides were exciting amusements for riders, complete with decorations including vivid lanterns that enabled nighttime enjoyment.
Introduction of Wheels
The French witnessed the popularity of the ice slides and entrepreneurs in the early 19th century built "Russian mountains" in the environs of Paris. Some say it was the French, others say it was a Russian who extended the concept to year-round fun by nixing the ice and opting instead for rollers that allowed the sleds to coast along, hence the name "roller coaster." But it was certainly the French who soon improved on this early rudimentary design by swapping the rollers out for wheels, while the name roller coaster remained.
American Roller Coasters
The United States hopped onto the roller coaster bandwagon following the French. A coal-mine train in Pennsylvania, the Mauch Chunk Railway, had such a scenic descent that not long after its construction in 1827, riders were willing to pay to experience the 6-mph downhill "thrill ride." This introduced a new concept: riders in a train of cars instead of unlinked, single cars. American patents for roller coasters date as far back as 1872, but what many consider the first truly modern roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, debuted in Coney Island in 1884. While still dependent solely on gravity, it featured the now-familiar undulating track that made riders feel as if they were defying gravity. The Switchback's designer LaMarcus Thompson secured 30 patents in the following years and built coasters across the country, aiming to improve his design. But others were close behind. In 1885, Philip Hinkle's Gravity Pleasure Road in Coney Island was the first coaster to feature a lift-cable system on a full-circuit track.
John Miller and Roller Coasters
John Miller is considered a key figure in roller coaster history, the "father" of what modern people know as roller coasters. In 1912, he enhanced roller coasters by integrating wheels that were located below the tracks. These wheels helped secure the trains to the track, even in the midst of rapid turns and falls. These "underfriction" rides not only operated faster, they moved with much less resistance, too. Miller was also a big pioneer in roller coaster safety. He came up with the idea for the lap bars that keep riders in place. These bars and several other safety features Miller introduced are still in use on roller coasters to this day.
- Inventors and Inventions; Robert Fulton and Charles Kettering
- The Roller Coaster Lover's Companion; Steven J. Urbanowicz
- Roller Coasters - United States and Canada; Todd H. Throgmorton
- National Roller Coaster Museum: History of the Roller Coaster
- Annenberg Learner: Roller Coaster History
- PBS: A Century of Screams - The History of the Roller Coaster
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