The forerunners of the primitive roller coasters were first created in Russia in the 1400s and 1500s. In the winter, seventy-foot hills were built of wood and hard-packed with snow. Water was sprayed on the snow in order to freeze; this would cause a slicker track. Guides would take riders down the slopes on a two-foot sled by holding the rider in their lap. During the 1700s, outside of Saint Petersburg, Russia, colorful lanterns were strung along the slope to allow sledding at night. Catherine the Great, the Russian empress, enjoyed this activity so much that she inspired the next phase of the roller coaster evolution: wheels were added to the sleds. Now, Russians could ride in the summer as well as the winter.
In the early 1800s, the ice slides arrived in France. Due to Frances milder weather, the slopes had to be modified from the "snow and ice" version. Rollers were closely spaced on the slopes, similar to a conveyor belt system. The first wheeled coaster, called a Russian Mountain, premiered in 1804 in Paris, France. Small wooden carriages traveled down metal tracks laid upon steep, wooden slopes. However, these rides were sometimes lethal. Often times, the carriage jumped the track, or the passenger tumbled out of the carriage car on the trip down the hill. Risking possible fatality, Parisians were enthused to ride Russian Mountains.
Aerial Walks were created in the Beaujon Garden of Paris in 1817. Guardrails lined the tracks, which dramatically improved the safety of the previous coasters. These only showed complete efficiency if the tracks were free of debris. A chestnut once caused a passenger to suffer a broken leg.
Two cars started on side-by-side tracks at the summit of the hill; at the bottom of the hill, the track would separate and circle back to the coaster station. The drop of the hill usually gave the cars enough energy to complete the course of the track. A ticket system was established for the operators of the ride to get a monetary benefit from the passengers.
Between 1817 and 1826, the French government granted a myriad of patents for the roller coasters. One coaster design included motors on the individual coaster cars, which would be powered by a windmill-like machine. Another design utilized handrails for each side of the track so the passengers would pull themselves up the hill. Yet another inventor incorporated a game-like atmosphere for his coaster: riders would use spears to catch rings as the coaster cars traveled along the coaster track. However, French people eventually tired of roller coasters after the mid-19th century. The development of these rides migrated to the United States of America.
In the 1870s, the first roller coaster arrived in North America (in theory). Richard Knudsen and J.G. Taylor received United States patents for what they called "inclined-plane railways". For Knudsen's ride, two adjacent railway tracks ran between two towers carrying four-passenger cars; the force of gravity would pull the cars down gently sloping hills. The cars were then hauled up by the elevators in the opposite tower for the return trip of the ride. Interestingly enough, it is believed that neither Knudsen nor Taylor constructed their designed rides.
A primitive type of roller coaster was unknowingly being developed in the state of Pennsylvania. A short railroad line, near the town of Mauch Chunk, transported coal from the top of Mount Pisgah to the canal in the valley below. Mules would draw the empty cars up the slope of the mountain, and board a special car. The coal was loaded, and the mule train would coast down the slope toward the canal below. This railway, known as a switchback, was in operation until the mine was closed in the early 1870s.
In due time, the town of Mauch Chunk would reopen the abandoned mine as a railroad for enjoyment. Passengers would ride in comfortable railway cars as steam engines pulled the car to the summit of Mount Pisgah. Then, the car would coast down the slope like the old mine had in the past. Riders would have a view of beautiful scenery and amazing sites (including the burning mine, on fire since 1832) as the coasting cars traveled along the railway track. The switchback railway quickly gained popularity; in 1873, thirty-five thousand passengers paid a fee of five cents apiece. In fact, the railway carried passengers until 1938.
By the late 1800s, the United States had its first true roller coaster at Coney Island, located near Brooklyn in New York City, New York. Coney Island offered the shore, shows, food, fortune-tellers, guess-your-weight booths and, of course, park rides.
LaMarcus Adna Thompson is the father of the first actual roller coaster. He believed that the coaster ride would provide wholesome entertainment for the youth of New York City. Also, Mauch Chunk's switchback railway showed that coasting car rides would be successful in attracting sufficient business. Therefore, in 1884, Thompson brought life to the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway featured at Coney Island. This coaster could hold ten passengers in a single coaster car, while riding along a gentle, wavy hill. The top speed was an "invigorating" six miles per hour. Still, the ride was extremely popular, earning an outstanding $600 daily, at five cents a ride. Construction costs for the Railway was paid in only three weeks.
After this unprecedented success, Coney Island coaster competition quickly heated up. The Serpentine Railway, designed by Charles Alcoke, premiered in 1884. His design was an oval coaster track, which began and ended in the same station (a modern "out and back"). Six passengers would ride sideways on a car that looked like a park bench. The speed of this coaster was a "startling" 12 miles per hour.
A chain lift was added on its first coaster in 1885. The coaster was Phillip Hinckles Gravity Pleasure Road. Also, on this coaster the passengers faced forward in the car. The modern coaster was slowly being evolved.
Thompson, "The Father of Gravity," created a new coaster with his competitions improvements and a few of his own design features. For the first time, the cars were linked together, creating the first coaster train. His safety features were improved, including an automatic cable grip that prevented coaster cars from rolling backwards. Thompsons new coaster also had tunnels with a new invention: triggered electric lighting. This instant hit was the Scenic Railway of Atlantic City, New Jersey.
In 1888, the first American looping coaster, a centrifugal railway, was presented to the public. This "Flip-Flap" was created by Lina Beecher, and sold to Captain Paul Boyton, who used the Flip Flap as a Coney Island attraction. Passengers would climb into a two-passenger car, speed down a 30-foot drop, and whip around a loop. However, the cars did not have seatbelts! Many passengers complained of back or neck injuries; therefore, the Flip-Flap was quickly deserted. Edward Prescott presented his own form of a looping coaster, the Loop-the-Loop, in 1901. To reduce the problems of the Flip-Flap, he designed the loop as a teardrop, instead of a true circle like the Flip-Flap. Even with these improvements, the Loop-the-Loop could only have four passengers per car. With a low passenger capacity, the Loop-the-Loop also failed.
During the "Roaring Twenties", roller coaster construction peaked in the United States. Amusement parks began to spring up across the nation. Owners of these parks would try to construct the largest, most frightening roller coaster to attract the most customers. By 1929, a total of about 1,500 wooden coasters were built.
The "Golden Age" of roller coasters ended with the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II of the 1940s. During the war, wood and rubber was used for the war effort, so these materials were not available for coaster maintenance. Therefore, many of the classic coasters began to decay.
Even after the economy boomed after the war, people didnt return to the abandoned amusement parks. With new highways, many families planned vacations far away from home. Television also kept consumers away from the parks. Cities grew up around the old parks. In 1948, there were only 368 parks left; there had been 2,000 in 1920. Over 1,000 roller coasters were torn down. The amusement parks of the 1950s began to decay and fall apart.
The rebirth of the amusement park began with one famous filmmaker: Walt Disney. In 1955, the first theme park, Disneyland, was opened. The new idea of the theme park was brilliant; all the rides fit into the theme of the "land" it inhabited. Disneyland, in 1959, featured the Matterhorn Bobsleds. The Matterhorn was the first modern steel roller coaster. The bobsleds cars ran on tubular steel tracks with nylon wheels. Thrills expected of steel coaster loops, a corkscrew track, and stability can be traced back to this first steel coaster.
Still, it took an old-fashioned wooden coaster to "jump start" the coaster business once again. Kings Island amusement park in Cincinnati, Ohio premiered in 1972. A new coaster was presented: the Racer. As the public fell in love with the Racer, theme parks began to open across the United States, featuring their own roller coasters. The number of major U.S. coasters rose from 147 in 1979 to 164 in 1989. In the 1990s, the number grew to over 200. Roller coasters were finally reborn.
In 1992, the first successful inverted coaster was created.
In 1997, Six Flags Magic Mountain introduced a scream machine that was 415 feet tall and could reach a speed of 100 miles per hour. Thanks to technology, and by applying the laws of physics, roller coaster designers keep pushing the limits of impossible.