A Brief History of Roller Coasters
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
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:
||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.
||Improvement of Inclined-Plane Railways
||There is no evidence indicating that this ride was ever built.
||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.
||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.
||Steam-Driven Hoist (powered lift)
||Hinkle's design was built in San Francisco in November 1884.
||Charles D. Kramer
||Joseph P. Yearick
||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.
||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
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 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
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.
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.
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
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!