When asked about the origin of roller coasters, most people’s minds immediately gravitate (see what I did there?) to Coney Island in the late 19th century. And it’s true – the roller coaster as we know it saw its start at the iconic New York amusement park around that time. The Gravity Switchback Railway, a simple wooden ride with none of the precipitous drops that we’re used to today, was not the first operating roller coaster in America, but it was the one that first achieved large-scale financial success. People stood in line for hours to ride the coaster, and although it only cost 5 cents per ride, the profits were around $600 a day! While the Gravity Switchback Railway set the scene for the coasters that we know and love today, the history of roller coasters began long before 1884.
Back in the Day
People around the world have been seeking gravity-induced thrills for years. Most roller coaster historians (yes, it’s a thing!) date the true origin of the roller coaster back to Russia in the 17th century…almost 400 years ago! This predecessor of today’s coaster was a steep wooden ramp that, in the wintertime, could be frozen over with several inches of ice. Less a roller coaster than a tall slide, this Russian tradition caught the attention of the Russian upper classes, who paid good money to ride down the frozen ramp again and again.
The most direct ancestor of the roller coaster in America appeared right before Coney Island rose to prominence. In 1827, a coal mining company in Pennsylvania had constructed the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway to carry their spoils down the mountain from which they were excavating. However, by the end of the century a newer, more sophisticated railway had been built on the mountain, and the Mauch Chunk railway was sitting idle. The coal company had the idea to send visitors down the slopes on the loose carts previously used to carry coal, and turned a sizeable profit converting their coal run into a runaway downhill thrill ride.
The American Speed Machine
The Gravity Switchback Railway at Coney Island opened a door for inventors and entrepreneurs to strike it rich building and selling rides on their zany coasters, and the first part of the 20th century saw many new roller coasters emerge. Scientists and inventors took on the new challenges of how to both defy and harness the force of gravity in order to create even more terrifying rides. In 1885, Phillip Hinkle developed the concept of the lift hill, the initial climb that a roller coaster takes to get even more height for its invigorating descent. Another inventor, John Miller, created dozens of innovations that helped lead to the roller coasters that we know of today, including the anti-rollback device, which activates regularly as cars climb the lift hill, ensuring that they don’t dangerously careen backwards; and under friction wheels, which slide out from underneath your roller coaster car seamlessly, giving the impression of the track dropping out from beneath you and giving the sensation of that thrilling – and frightening – stomach drop.
Unfortunately, the Depression in America put a stop to the innovations that countless people contributed to the roller coaster business. While cheaper sources of entertainment such as cinema prospered despite the economic downturn, more expensive thrills like roller coasters saw a steep decline. There went from being a couple thousand amusement parks around the United States to only several hundred. The enthusiasm for roller coasters wouldn’t return until the parents of Baby Boomers began looking for things to do with their children in the late fifties and sixties, but the craze for amusement parks never reached the same level that it had maintained earlier in the century.
Roller Coasters Today
Roller coasters are still a huge part of American culture, and have extended past national borders to be a worldwide phenomenon! Whether you love them or are terrified by them, they’ve provided thrilling rides for countless numbers of people, and speak to the innovations of numerous great minds worldwide. For more on the science of how roller coasters work, check out our blog post from last week. And for still more gravity-related thrills, check out our newest game, Roller Coaster Challenge, coming to stores soon!