A Brief History
On January 20, 1885, LaMarcus A. Thompson patented his version of the modern roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, which became the first roller coaster at Coney Island in New York!
Digging deeper, we find that versions of the roller coaster had existed earlier, but this patent was the big step toward what has been the premier attraction at amusement parks for well over 100 years now.
Obviously, starting long ago, people got thrills going downhill quickly. Sleds on winter slopes and wheeled vehicles racing down a road courtesy of gravity were not purpose-built thrills but more of an accidental joyride sometimes repeated for the enjoyment received.
When wheeled carts riding on tracks began to be used, especially in mining with the purpose of moving dirt, coal or ore, the rush of quickly rolling downhill began to attract riders for the thrill, which in turn evolved into tracks being laid on hills or on trestles made for the specific purpose of amusement.
Starting perhaps 250 years ago, the Russians created artificially-enhanced hills, sometimes on trestles (artificial hills of wood framework) covered in snow and ice, something we would know as toboggan chutes. These so-called “Russian Mountains,” allegedly called “American Mountains” in Russia, were replicated in other parts of Europe as well.
Thompson took things a step further and created the modern roller coaster layout consisting of a series of cars completing an entire circuit, ending up back where they started. As this thrill ride became widespread, improvements were made, especially by adding tunnels and painted scenery.
Today we have an enormous variety of “coasters,” some on wooden trestles, some with metal framework, some with loops (very thrilling!) and some with no “cars” at all, but rather with arrangements where thrill seekers are suspended in rigid harnesses or in individually suspended seats. The “Wild Mouse” type of coaster puts riders in single cars rather than in a “train” and features terrifying hairpin turns.
The competition between amusement parks to have the tallest, longest, fastest, scariest roller coasters has resulted in continual increases in all the criteria that go into each new design as each park “one ups” the other.
Despite continuous improvement, coaster accidents still sometimes cost lives, which only adds to the attraction and the feeling of having cheated death. The gruesome stories of decapitations, torn-off limbs, long falls from great height, etc. are part of the mystique! Fortunately, such incidents have lead to lawsuits and public demand on legislators to pass stricter rules and regulations governing the design and operation of roller coasters, making them fairly safe!
Question for students (and subscribers): If you have one, what and where is your favorite roller coaster? Please let us know in the comment section below this article and please remember to keep those hands and feet inside the car and do not stand up!
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For more information on the history of roller coasters, please see…
Bennett, David. Roller Coaster: Wooden and Steel Coasters, Twisters and Corkscrews. Chartwell Books, 1998.
Francis, David W. and Diane Demali Francis. Golden Age of Roller Coasters in Vintage Postcards, The (Postcard History). Arcadia Publishing, 2003.
You may also enjoy the following documentary:
History – Modern Marvels: Roller Coasters: Search For Ultimate Thrill. A&E Television Networks, 2009. DVD.
And you know you secretly wish the following were real…
The featured image in this article, LaMarcus Thompson’s Switchback Railway (1884), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube: