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The History of Roller Coasters

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

When you’ve built a roller-coaster and called it “The Monster,” where do you go next? You build a higher, faster, more twisted ride and watch as people line up for the chance to be scared witless.

No. Just no.

No. Just no.

First Roller Coasters

Russia seems to have been the birthplace of the roller-coaster concept, but these early 18th century versions were coasters without rollers. Patrons paid money to sit on an ice block and slide down a snow-covered hill constructed out of wood. Compound fractures added to the fun.

In his 1987 book The Incredible Scream Machine: A History of the Roller Coaster, Robert Cartmell quotes an early thrill seeker as saying “I was terrified out of my wits for fear ... to go down for I had the ... dread of breaking my neck.”

Within a few years, carriages were put on wheels and tracks were built. The French added a locking mechanism so the carriages did not derail. This was thought to be a good idea.

The Promenades-Aériennes in Paris roller coaster of 1817.

The Promenades-Aériennes in Paris roller coaster of 1817.

The Switchback Railway

American businessman and inventor LaMarcus Thompson is frequently cited as the “Father of the Roller-Coaster.” But, as with so many creations, Thompson was refining the work of others.

In 1827, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company built a gravity railroad in eastern Pennsylvania. Cars loaded with coal whizzed down a track to be unloaded and transferred to barges for shipment.

A better method of moving coal was devised and the gravity railroad lost its reason to exist. Then, someone with a keenly developed entrepreneurial spirit suggested letting folks ride down the track in the coal cars, presumably cleaned up a bit.

The Maunch Chunk Switchback Railway was an enormous success. Thousands of tourists flocked to the area to take a ride.

The Maunch Chunk Switchback Railway.

The Maunch Chunk Switchback Railway.

Praise the Lord and Let Her Roll

Meanwhile, in Elkhart, Indiana, LaMarcus Adna Thompson was worrying about the decline of America’s moral fibre. People were going to taverns and gambling. Dance halls and brothels were doing great business.

Thompson knew something had to be done to stop the debauchery. He found the cure when he visited the Maunch Chunk Switchback Railway. Here was a healthy, family entertainment that would take people’s minds off the pleasures of the flesh.

In the spring of 1884, Thompson’s Switchback Railway opened at New York’s Coney Island. It was 600 feet long and had several hills and hollows arranged in a straight line. Passengers travelled for five cents at a heart-stopping and bladder-loosening six miles an hour. New rides were built with scenic backdrops so customers could view mock-ups of Swiss mountains or the frozen tundra of the North Pole.

The Switchback Railway was a sensational success but, sadly for Thompson, it created no decline in beer sales or the demand for other licentious behaviour.

The Golden Age of Roller Coasters

The Vintage News says that “Within three weeks, Thompson was making some six hundred dollars a day—the equivalent of fifteen-thousand a day today.”

The money-making ability of the Switchback Railway was duly noted by other entrepreneurs who started to one-up each other with ever-more scary rides.

Corners were added so the coaster could make a round trip. Speeds increased and rides got longer and more torturous. With cars hurtling through tunnels and looping the loop and all-out assault on the digestive system began.

Coney Island’s Cyclone opened for business in 1927.

Coney Island’s Cyclone opened for business in 1927.

The first two decades of the 20th century became known as the Golden Age of Roller Coasters. The contraptions were being built everywhere with names such as Thunderbolt and Cyclone to challenge the intestinal fortitude of courting couples. Old folks, as always, mostly had more sense than to go on the wretched inventions.

Then, the Great Depression came along to ruin everything. The Second World War ruined everything even more. The recovery from both those catastrophes was long, so the roller coaster industry lay dormant until the late 1950s.

The Return of the Roller Coaster

In 1959, Disneyland in California opened its Matterhorn Bobsled ride. The race was on to go higher and faster.

Matt Blitz writes on Popular Mechanics “There were intense scenic railways like 1966’s Runaway Mine Train at Six Flags Over Texas. Cedar Point’s Corkscrew opened in 1976 as the only coaster in world to turn people upside down three times. By the 1990s, riders were being inverted, flown while standing up, and launched [from] zero to 54 miles and hour in seconds using magnetic fields.”

the-history-of-roller-coasters

Having started on the escalation of screams the roller coaster manufacturers have to keep topping themselves. Hang Time in California offers a plunge from 150 feet at a more than vertical angle (96 degrees) followed by five inversions. Knott’s Berry Farm, which hosts this brute does not mention whether paramedics are on hand. (Doesn’t a berry farm seem like one of the most unlikely places for such a contraption?)

The Harley Quinn Crazy Coaster at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in California is an inverted figure of eight that riders go through several times before being allowed to get off. Perhaps, an advance precaution here might be to embrace your companions and/or family and tell them you love them before boarding.

Then, there’s the … But that’s enough. Where’s the Pepto-Bismol?

Bonus Factoids

  • The amusement park industry wants you to know that getting killed or injured by a thrill ride is very rare. However, it does still happen and when it does it usually involves a roller coaster. The odds of dying are said to be one in 750 million. But, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions says its members gave guests 1.7 billion rides in 2016.
  • Julijonas Urbonas has taken the roller coaster concept to its ultimate destination. He has designed a theoretical machine that combines a thrill ride with euthanasia. A car with 24 passengers would be hoisted to the top of a 510-metre (1,670 ft) incline. Then, there would be a pause for anybody to change their mind and dismount. With a shout of “All Aboard” the train would set off downhill, reaching 360 kilometres per hour (220 mph), before spinning through a series of inversions. Clients would be subjected to a fatal force of 10 g and delivered into the waiting arms of funeral directors.
  • A personal note. Sometime in the early 1970s, people who posed as friends persuaded me to take a ride on The Flyer, a vintage, wooden roller coaster on the grounds of Toronto’s Exhibition Park. Fate dictated that I should be in the front seat of the train. We hurtled down the first hill and I saw a sharp turn to the left coming towards me. At that moment, I knew I was going to die in the next second. For all I know, I did expire back then and I’ve been existing in a roller coaster-free alternate dimension ever since.

Sources

  • “The Incredible Scream Machine: A History of the Roller Coaster.” Robert Cartmell Popular Press, 1987.
  • “Switchback Railroad Historical Marker.” Vincent Hydro, explorepahistory.com, 2002.
  • “From Death Traps to Disneyland: The 600-Year History of the Roller Coaster.” Matt Blitz, Popular Mechanics, August 13, 2018.
  • “Roller Coasters were First Invented to Distract People from Immoral Behavior.” Matthew Gaskill, Vintage News, October 24, 2018.
  • “12 Most Anticipated Roller Coasters of 2018.” Arthur Levine, USA TODAY, January 2, 2018.
  • “How Often Does Someone Die on a Theme Park Ride?” Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, tripsavvy.com, August 7, 2018.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on May 27, 2019:

This is a fascinating article. I hadn't realised how far roller coasters date back.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 20, 2019:

A that is now history.

John Coviello from New Jersey on May 20, 2019:

Interesting article. I had no idea that rollercoasters trace their roots back to Russian ice rides. I remember the Maunch Chunk Switchback Railway being part of rollercoaster history, but I never saw a film of one in action. Cool stuff!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 20, 2019:

Hello, Rupert, it is all fun. But the risks are high. The owners only care for the money. Thanks for sharing.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on May 20, 2019:

Reading this and watching them videos shows how far roller coasters have come over the years. Some of them are so scary nowadays!