The History Of Roller Coaster

The history of the roller coaster, from it's beginings in 15th century Russia to the present day popular wooden and steel roller coaster.

People all over the world, old and young, flock by the millions each year to amusement parks in order to ride the star attraction: the roller coaster. The feeling of coasting at speeds, sometimes over 100 mph is a heart-pounding, adrenaline rush for thrill seekers. Today, there are various types of coasters; wooden, steel, shuttle (where you are standing or sitting with your feet freely dangling), loops, corkscrews, single-circuit and closed-circuit tracks. How and where did the roller coaster originate?

Believe it or not, the first coaster was actually a hand-carved block of ice. During the early 15th century in the frozen mountainous tundra regions of Russia, the natives constructed the very first amusement ride. The natives would climb smooth, ice-laden mountain paths that were clear of trees. Here, they would chisel away at ice blocks to form a toboggan. They would cover the icy seats with blankets, sit and slide down the mountains. They installed a braking system by spreading out mounds of dirt at the bottom of the mountain so that the toboggan would be able to slow down to stop when the toboggan hit the dirt. This was a great pastime! The only downfall was that once they reached the bottom of the mountain, they would have to walk all the way back up to the top, with the toboggan in tow, in order to ride again! Soon they began to use animals such as mules to help make the trek easier.

Later, the natives would come to use wooden sleds. Sleds are different from toboggans because sleds have runners; hence they can go faster. The natives also developed a hoist-pulley system in which to carry themselves and the sleds to the top of the mountain. The hoist system is very similar to modern day ski lifts. This thrilling trend spread throughout Europe and American, and soon by the 19th century, a new type coaster appeared. The railways paid a great contribution in the birth and development of the modern day roller coaster. In the mid 1800s, an Pennsylvania coal mining company invented a small gravity powered cart which was used on the railway to transport coal from the mines to it's destination. The mechanism also sported a hand-controlled brake, so that the cart could be stopped, and then reversed, and led back in the same direction. The railway company, Mauch Chunk Rails, launched a fabulous idea: Why not allow people to take a scenic tour of the Pennsylvania countryside while riding in the iron carts? It was a groundbreaking idea. People lined up on the weekends to take the tours at a cost of about ten cents for a peaceful 1-2 hour country tour.

By the mid 1800s, similar single-track coasters were showing up at amusement parks throughout Europe and The USA. Instead of country scenic tours, these coasters led riders through tours that were theme oriented; gardens, simulated villages, "the love tunnel" and scary themes, like goblins and ghosts. The coasters went less than 20 mph, as engineers had not yet worked out how to incorporate the physics of gravitational pull with coasters. Very soon, however, at the turn of the 20th century, the gravity switchback coaster was developed for the infamous Coney Island Amusement Park in Brooklyn, NY. A switchback coaster is a coaster that begins on one track, and then switches to another to enable the coaster to take turns and dips. A wealthy investor named John Miller was able to design the first coaster which used a new process called "underfriction"; this meant that the coaster's cars now used the forces of friction that comes from the close bearing upon of two surfaces that are rubbing against each other. The underfriction held the cars on the track. This meant that the coaster cars could go faster, and stop quicker. This was the beginning of coasters as we know them today.

The next generation of coasters would be wooden and lighter weight, allowing for more "swaying," which the public loved. The introduction of wheels on the coasters was introduced. There were 4 wheels; similar to the wheels on present day bumper cars. These wheels helped keep the coasters on the tracks. Also, "upstops" were invented. Upstops were a device that kept the cars connected to the moving belts; so the cars could not derail. Also, "Safety Dogs" were used to prevent backward rolling. Safety dogs are infamous for making that clickity-clanky noise as a wooden coaster creeps up to the first dip. Many screams are associated with the noise, for it sounds as if the coaster were struggling, but it isn't, it is merely switching from chain links. Shortly after the end of Victorian Era, many new and fascinating roller coasters were constructed, but the excitement was short-lived. In 1929, Wall Street crashed. People lost much of their investments and savings, which led to the Great Depression. And then WWII came and the world was in a state of crisis. People could no longer afford amusement attractions; so many parks dismantled their coasters, and closed the theme parks.

Roller Coasters were brought back to life when Disneyland opened its doors in the mid-fifties. The main attraction was the Matterhorn. The Matterhorn contained many of the elements of the past; firstly, the Swiss had donated a huge reconstruction of a Swiss mountain. Inside of the mountain, a toboggan like car zipped around sharp turns, took small dips, which carried passengers inside and outside of this huge imitation mountain. The Mattahorn was the first steel coaster; and it was tubular steel (hallow inside), so it could go faster than any other previous roller coaster. With the emergence of tubular steel, the doors were opened for more fascinating coasters; loops, corkscrews, and inverted coasters. Although loop roller coasters were first attempted in the 1920s, they were not successful. The maintenance was very costly, and there was not enough public interest, probably out of fear, to keep those rides going and they soon closed.

The first loop coaster opened at Magic Mountain in California in 1975. It was recently dismantled in 1996. It was the start of the loop craze, and soon almost all of the amusement parks had loop and corkscrew coasters. Today, engineering has brought forth roller coasters that can reach speeds of 104 MPH. Some are as high as 415 feet, and drops as high as 239 feet! Wooden coasters still remain, and continue to attract as many people as do the steel coasters.

One thing to remember is that the roller coaster is the safest ride in the amusement park. Most accidents that occur are the result of rider and operator carelessness. Either the safety harnesses are not secured, or the riders engage in horseplay, such as standing up during the ride, or flailing their arms outside of the car. You also have a greater chance of being seriously injured by driving a car than you do riding a coaster. Remember that gravity is on your side, and it is the laws of physics that give you the sensation that you are "flying" out of the coaster car.

© High Speed Ventures 2011