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A Brief History of Roller Coasters

Russian Mountains

The roller coaster traces its origins to Russia, where wood-framed ice slides sent sledders down 70-foot high slopes as early as the 16th century. These Russian Mountains also became popular summertime attractions when wheeled carts rolled riders down large, undulating wooden ramps.

Gravity Switchback Railway

What is considered the first successful commercial roller coaster made its debut in 1884 at New York's famous Coney Island. LaMarcus A. Thompson constructed the first roller coaster, the primitive Gravity Switchback Railway. The ride was an instant success, drawing long lines of eager riders and yielding returns at an astounding $600 a day. The idea of the gravity ride spread quickly, leading to great diversity in early roller coaster design. Rides similar to Thompson’s, as well as new variations were constructed worldwide.

Early Roller Coaster Designs

As reported by Jeffrey Stanton in the Fall 2007 issue of RollerCoaster!, there were several early roller coaster patents for early roller coasters, both switchback and circular, granted by the U.S. Patent Office between the years of 1872 and 1886. The following early roller coaster patents were issued:

Patent # Date Granted Inventor Description Operating Notes
128,674 7/2/1872 John G. Taylor Improvement of Inclined Railways According to newspaper articles of the period, Taylor's design was built at West Haven's Savin Rock and operated in 1873. It was a popular ride with over 250,000 people enjoying the ride that year.
198,888 1/1/1878 Richard Knudson Improvement of Inclined-Plane Railways There is no evidence indicating that this ride was ever built.
291,261 1/1/1884 Alanson Wood Circular Railway Wood, along with Toledo investor Joseph A. Cahoon and other partners, began construction on this design in Toledo, and possibly Cleveland, in 1883. They then built in Ponce de Leon Springs in Georgia and Coney Island, New York, in June 1884, and at Philadelphia's Fairmont Park in July 1884. Wood may also have built a circular coaster in Chicago in 1885.
298,710 5/18/1884 Philo M. Stevens and Roller Coaster of America Company Circular Railway modifications Stevens, incorrectly identified as Stevenson by a reporter, built a circular railway in Chicago in 1883. His patent was assigned to the Roller Coaster of America Company, where the generic name roller coaster originated.
307,942 11/11/1884 Phillip Hinkle Steam-Driven Hoist (powered lift) Hinkle's design was built in San Francisco in November 1884.
310,966 1/20/1885 LaMarcus Thompson Switchback Railway Coney Island
315,640 4/14/1885 Charles D. Kramer Incline Railway Unknown
316,512 4/28/1885 Joseph P. Yearick Gravity Railroad There is evidence that Yearick built his gravity railways in several locations, including his home town of Toledo, the West Virginia State Fairgrounds in Wheeling, Memphis, New Orleans, and other cities.
317,273 1/1885 Charles Alcoke Serpentine Railway Alcoke's circular railway may have operated on the beach at the foot of one of the Iron Piers at Brooklyn's Coney Island.

Refer to Victor Canfield's amusement park patent Web site for information about other patents for roller coasters.

Figure Eight and Scenic Railway

As the technology of coaster design progressed, rides such as the gentle Figure Eight with its shallow dips, the wondrous Scenic Railway with brilliantly lit tableaus, and the first high-speed coasters began to appear. 1920 set the stage for the Golden Age of roller coasters.

The Golden Age

Throughout the 1920s, pioneering designers such as John A. Miller, Harry Traver, Herb Schmeck, and the partnership of Prior and Church developed the ultimate gravity ride attractions. Wild thrill machines like Canada’s infamous Crystal Beach Cyclone, New York’s Coney Island Cyclone, New York’s Rye Beach Aeroplane, and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Giant Dipper were erected. In the following decade, innovations such as Norman Bartlett’s Flying Turns appeared. Ultimately, nearly 2,000 coasters were built. Hardly any of them remain today.

The Decline

The 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s brought economic and social changes—and a low point in the survival of roller coasters. Amusement parks deteriorated and declined from coast to coast. Unfortunately, hundreds of roller coasters met the fate of the wrecking ball during this dark period.

A Coaster Revival

In 1972, the appearance of the wooden Kings Island Racer in Cincinnati, Ohio helped restore the public’s lover for roller coasters. (Featuring the Racer in episodes of “The Brady Bunch” and “The Partridge Family" didn’t hurt either!) This ushered in a “coaster revival,” which included the release of the 1977 Universal Studios motion picture, “Rollercoaster.” In 1978, American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) was founded as a worldwide organization dedicated to the conservation, appreciation, knowledge, and enjoyment of the art of the classic wooden roller coaster and the contemporary steel coaster.

Wood Coaster Renaissance

Encouraging developments emerged in the 70s and 80s. A renewed interest in the classic wooden designs of the 20s lead to the construction of the Texas Cyclone at the now-defunct Six Flags Astroworld, the Grizzly at Kings Dominion in Virginia, and LaRonde’s Le Monstre in Montreal, among others. Classic coaster design continues its reemergence in the contemporary, computer-assisted era including 20s looking clones like Roar at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom.

Relocation and Restoration

As the 1980s drew to a close, an emphasis on preservation of classic wooden coasters resulted in the historic relocation of San Antonio’s Rocket to Pennsylvania, where it was reconstructed as the Phoenix at Knoebels Amusement Resort and is now regarded as one of the world’s best coasters.

Preservation

In the 1990s, preservation of wood coasters remained a primary objective for American Coaster Enthusiasts. In 1994, the industry celebrated the opening of the legendary Crystal Beach Comet at The Great Escape in Lake George, New York. The reconstruction of the Comet set a new standard for rebuilding once-threatened coasters to their original, classified specifications. Wooden roller coasters that have been standing unused have reopened as well. The Swamp Fox in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina had a new park built around it. The pinnacle of preservation for ACE’s members was in 1999, when Leap the Dips at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the oldest standing roller coaster in the world, reopened after standing dormant for 14 years, thanks in large part to efforts by the organization.

Steel Acrobatics

Advancement in technologies has paved the way for wild innovations in steel coaster designs. Ohio’s Cedar Point has Gemini, which combines a wooden structure with steel tubular tracks; Virginia’s Busch Gardens boasts The Big Bad Wolf, a coaster suspended from overhead rails; and Great America in California offers up Vortex in which passengers stand while riding. “Inverted” coasters, designed so riders’ feet dangle freely from cars that hang beneath the track, send riders looping skyward on Batman: The Ride at Six Flags parks. Riders soar face-first in a prone position on new “flying” coasters such as Superman Ultimate Flight at Six Flags over Georgia in Atlanta. Magnetic propulsion launch systems hurl trains and riders down the track like bullets from the barrel of a gun on coasters such as Flight of Fear at Kings Island in Ohio. State-of-the-art electromagnetic motors blast the aerodynamic vehicles of Superman: The Escape at Six Flags Magic Mountain from 0 to 100 mph in less than 7 seconds! In 2002, Six Flags Magic Mountain near Los Angeles, California unveiled X, the world’s first 4th dimension roller coaster in which terrified riders hang off the sides of the specially designed 20-foot-wide trains flipping forwards and backwards at speeds up to 76 mph.

Megacoasters, Hypercoasters, and Gigacoasters

A megacoaster stands taller or extends farther than most ordinary rides; witness Phantom’s Revenge in Pittsburgh’s Kennywood Park or the Beast at Kings Island. The hypercoaster stands at least 200 feet high–the first of which was Cedar Point’s legendary Magnum XL-200. Other hypercoasters include Desperado near Las Vegas, Steel Force at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Mamba at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri. Cedar Point introduced Millennium Force, the world’s first gigacoaster topping off at an astounding 310 feet above terra firma.

A New Millennium

In 2003, Cedar Point opened Top Thrill Dragster, which uses hydraulics to blast trains from 0 to 120mph in just seconds up to a height of 420 feet. Dodonpa, a coaster at Fuji-Q in the Land of the Rising Sun is a similar ride that that uses compressed air to launch its trains. And we’re just getting started, folks. It won’t be long before we see coasters soaring over 500 feet in the air. The sky’s the limit (literally) when it comes to coaster design in the new millennium!