Innovations

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Richard Lam/AP

Great Inventions: The Roller Coaster

February 19, 2011
by Lindsey Chapman
For many, the arrival of summer causes eager anticipation of trips to the amusement park. And roller coasters, the staple of the theme park experience, provide the most thrill and excitement. Modern roller coasters are the product centuries of innovation, and have a long history that predates the amusement park.

Origins

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“People have been sliding and rolling along terrain for fun since they first climbed down from the trees,” writes the BBC, but “organised coaster-like rides” emerged in the 1400s with the help of citizens of St. Petersburg, Russia.

Early roller coasters were primitive, with riders sitting on fur scraps or hay and sand. Eventually, they graduated to using ice slides to move along. The creation had great appeal, even for royalty; Catherine the Great ordered that slides be built on her property so she could enjoy the excitement.

By 1816, thrill seekers were riding buggies with wheels on the “Russian Mountain”—a large undulating slide—in Paris. Passengers climbed to the top and rode the buggy down sideways.

Even though accidents were common, the risks only made people want to try them more. The French are credited with developing the roller coaster further in subsequent years.

Roller Coasters in America

In the United States, where inventors were dabbling with the idea of a “gravity ride,” people knew little about what was happening with roller coasters overseas because early news about the rides was not well publicized.

People in the United States “had no choice but to work blind, recreating what had already been accomplished.” In the 1820s, roller coasters were designed not for amusement, but for helping workers remove coal from a mine in Pennsylvania. Mules were the first passengers on these roller coasters, riding down a mountain in a train full of coal, and then pulling the empty cars back to the top.

The first roller coaster in the United States opened on June 16, 1884, at Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y. It sped along at 6 miles per hour, and cost passengers a nickel per ride.

Rebound

Amusement parks experienced a popularity decline with the onset of the Great Depression and World War II. In 1955, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, Calif., leading to “the advent of the modern theme park and a rebirth of the roller coaster.”

New parks and roller coasters followed, fueling the urge to create even more exciting park rides. Back at Coney Island, the Cyclone, which was introduced there in 1927, still stands as one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in operation today.

Entrepreneurs took confidence in Disneyland’s success, starting theme parks such as Six Flags, Kings Island and Busch Gardens. The attractions became even more daring with time, featuring water elements and corkscrew turns

As steel coasters found their way onto the scene, the wooden contraptions weren’t eclipsed. People were attracted to the nostalgia of the old coasters, and the American Coaster Enthusiasts organization was formed to help support preservation of the relics.

Today’s Roller Coasters

Since the early days of the roller coaster, the rides have grown tremendously in terms of the height, speed and imagination used to create them. Hypercoasters like the “Magnum XL-200” and the “Desperado” reach at least 200 feet high. The “Millennium Force,” which is the world’s first gigacoaster, peaks at 310 feet tall.

Roller Coaster Search

To search for more great roller coasters around the world, use the Roller Coaster DataBase. Facts and pictures about the unique roller coasters are featured.

Great clips of roller coasters in action are available at the Roller Coaster Videos Web site.
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