History of the roller coaster

Coney Island Cyclone in Brooklyn was built in 1927 and refurbished in 1975.

Roller coaster amusement rides have origins back to ice slides constructed in 18th-century Russia. Early technology featured sleds or wheeled carts that were sent down hills of snow reinforced by wooden supports. The technology evolved in the 19th century to feature railroad track using wheeled cars that were securely locked to the track. Newer innovations emerged in the early 20th century with side friction and underfriction technologies to allow for greater speeds and sharper turns. By the mid-to-late 20th century, these elements intensified with the introduction of steel roller coaster designs and the ability to invert riders.



The world's oldest roller coasters descended from the "Russian Mountains", which were hills of ice built in the 17th century for the purpose of sliding, located in the gardens of palaces around the Russian capital, Saint Petersburg.[1] Other languages also reference Russian mountains when referring to roller coasters, such as the Spanish (la montaña rusa), the Italian (montagne russe), and the French (les montagnes russes). The Russian term for roller coaster, американские горки (amerikanskie gorki), translates literally as "American mountains".[2]

The recreational attractions were called Katalnaya Gorka (Катальная Горка) or "sliding mountain" in Russian. Many were built to a height of 70 to 80 feet (21 to 24 m) with a 50-degree drop, and were reinforced by wooden supports covered in ice. The slides became popular with the Russian upper class. Catherine the Great of Russia constructed a summer version of the ride at her estate in 1784, which relied on wheeled carts instead of sleds that rode along grooved tracks.[3][4]

The Promenades-Aeriennes in Paris, 1817

Russian soldiers occupying Paris from 1815 to 1816, after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, may have introduced the Russian amusement of sledding down steep hills.[5] In July 1817, a French banker named Nicolas Beaujon opened the Parc Beaujon, an amusement park on the Champs Elysees. Its most famous feature was the Promenades Aériennes or "Aerial Strolls."[6] It featured wheeled cars securely locked to the track, guide rails to keep them on course, and higher speeds.[3] The three-wheel carts were towed to the top of a tower, and then released to descend two curving tracks on either side. King Louis XVIII of France came to see the park, but it is not recorded if he tried the ride. Before long there were seven similar rides in Paris: Les Montagnes françaises (The French Mountains), le Delta, les Montagnes de Belleville (The Mountains of Belleville), les Montagnes américaines (the American Mountains), Les Montages lilliputiennes, (The miniature mountains), Les Montagnes suisses (The Swiss mountains), and Les Montagnes égyptiennes (The Egyptian mountains).[5]

In the beginning, these attractions were primarily for the upper classes. In 1845 a new amusement park opened in Copenhagen, Tivoli, which was designed for the middle class. These new parks featured roller coasters as permanent attractions. The first permanent loop track was probably also built in Paris from an English design in 1846, with a single-person wheeled sled running through a 13-foot (4 m) diameter vertical loop. These early single loop designs were called Centrifugal Railways. In 1887, a French entrepreneur, Joseph Oller, the owner of the Moulin Rouge music hall, built Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville (The Russian Mountains of Belleville) a permanent roller coaster with a length of two hundred meters in the form of a double-eight, later enlarged to four figure-eight-shaped loops.[5]

Scenic railways

In the 1850s, a mining company in Summit Hill, Pennsylvania, constructed the Mauch Chunk gravity railroad, a brakeman-controlled, 8.7-mile (14 km) downhill track used to deliver coal to Mauch Chunk (now known as Jim Thorpe), Pennsylvania.[7] By 1872, the "Gravity Road" (as it became known) was selling rides to thrill seekers. Railway companies used similar tracks to provide amusement on days when ridership was low.

Thompson's Switchback Railway, 1884

Using this idea as a basis, LaMarcus Adna Thompson began work on a gravity Switchback Railway that opened at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York in 1884.[8] Passengers climbed to the top of a platform and rode a bench-like car down the 600 ft (180 m) track up to the top of another tower where the vehicle was switched to a return track and the passengers took the return trip.[9] This track design was soon replaced with an oval complete circuit.[10] In 1885, Phillip Hinkle introduced the first complete-circuit coaster with a lift hill, the Gravity Pleasure Road, which became the most popular attraction at Coney Island.[10] Not to be outdone, in 1886 LaMarcus Adna Thompson patented his design for a roller coaster that included dark tunnels with painted scenery. "Scenic Railways" were soon found in amusement parks across the county,[10] with Frederick Ingersoll's construction company building many of them in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Growing popularity and innovations

Loop the Loop, an early looping roller coaster at Coney Island, 1906

As it grew in popularity, experimentation in coaster dynamics took off. In the 1880s the concept of a vertical loop was again explored by Lina Beecher, and in 1895 the concept came into fruition with the Flip Flap Railway, located at Sea Lion Park in Brooklyn, and shortly afterward with Loop the Loop at Olentangy Park near Columbus, Ohio as well as similar coasters in Atlantic City and Coney Island. The rides were incredibly dangerous, and many passengers suffered whiplash. Both were soon dismantled, and looping coasters had to wait for over a half century before making a reappearance.

By 1919, the first underfriction roller coaster had been developed by John Miller.[11] Soon, roller coasters spread to amusement parks all around the world. Perhaps the best known historical roller coaster, The Cyclone, was opened at Coney Island in 1927. Like The Cyclone, all early roller coasters were made of wood. Many old wooden roller coasters are still operational, at parks such as Kennywood near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Pleasure Beach Blackpool. The oldest operating roller coaster is Leap-The-Dips at Lakemont Park in Pennsylvania, a side friction roller coaster built in 1902. The oldest wooden roller coaster in the United Kingdom is the Scenic Railway at Dreamland Amusement Park in Margate, Kent and features a system where the brakeman rides the car with wheels. It was severely damaged by fire on April 7, 2008, but was subsequently restored and reopened to the public in 2015.[12] Scenic Railway at Melbourne's Luna Park built in 1912, is the world's oldest continually-operating roller coaster, and it also still features a system where the brakeman rides the car with wheels. One of only 13 remaining examples of John Miller's work worldwide is the wooden roller coaster at Lagoon in Utah. The coaster opened in 1921 and is the 6th oldest coaster in the world.[13]

The Great Depression marked the end of the golden age of roller coasters, as amusement parks generally went into a decline that resulted in less demand for new coasters. This lasted until 1972, when The Racer opened at Kings Island amusement park located in what was then a part of Deerfield Township in Warren County, Ohio. Designed by John C. Allen, the instant success of The Racer helped to ignite a renaissance for roller coasters, reviving worldwide interest throughout the industry.

The rise of steel

Matterhorn Bobsleds was the world's first tubular steel roller coaster.

In 1959, the Disneyland theme park introduced a new design breakthrough in roller coasters with the Matterhorn Bobsleds. This was the first roller coaster to use a tubular steel track. Unlike conventional wooden rails, which are generally formed using steel strips mounted on laminated wood, tubular steel can be bent in any direction, which allows designers to incorporate loops, corkscrews, and many other maneuvers into their designs. Most modern roller coasters are made of steel, although wooden roller coasters are still being built along with hybrids of steel and wood.

In 1975 the first modern-day roller coaster to perform an inverting element opened: Corkscrew, located at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. In 1976 the vertical loop made a permanent comeback with the Great American Revolution at Magic Mountain in Valencia, California.

Timeline of notable roller coasters

The roller coasters mentioned here are significant for their role in the amusement industry. They were notable for specific reasons, including:

  • First roller coaster of a specific kind, style, manufacturing material or unique technology; ground-breaking
  • First time a particular record-breaking threshold was crossed
  • Historical significance

18th century


Russian Empress Catherine the Great builds a summer version of the "Russian mountain" slide, featuring sleds with wheels, at her estate in Oranienbaum, Russia near St. Petersburg.[3]

1800 to 1899


  • First roller coaster featuring cars that locked onto track: Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville (Russian Mountains of Belleville), Paris, France.
  • First roller coaster to feature two cars racing each other: Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville.
  • First complete-circuit roller coaster: Promenades Aériennes (The Aerial Walk), Paris.
  • First roller coaster: Cat Magic Brittain




1900 to 1970


  • Leap-The-Dips opens at Lakemont Park, Altoona, Pennsylvania. It is today the world's oldest operating wooden roller coaster (it was closed from 1985 until 1999).[10]
  • Cannon Coaster opens at Coney Island. The designer first attempts to "leap-the-gap" and create a roller coaster which has its cars jump over a gap in the track. Safety testing fails, and the idea is scrapped.[10]




Scenic Railway at Luna Park (Melbourne, Australia) is the world's oldest continually-operating roller coaster, having been built in 1912.



  • First roller coaster to utilize up-stop wheels: Jack Rabbit, SeaBreeze, Rochester, New York, United States.


  • First roller coaster to reach 100 feet: Cyclone, Revere Beach, Revere, Massachusetts, United States.




Vuoristorata in November 2015








Corkscrew at Cedar Point was the first roller coaster with three inversions.


  • First shuttle roller coaster: although six opened the same year, White Lightnin' - Carowinds (Charlotte, North Carolina, United States) White Lightnin', at Carowinds, is likely to have opened first, given the park's southern location and longer operating season.



  • The Beast: opened as the tallest, fastest and longest wooden roller coaster. Today it's still the longest wooden roller coaster in the world.
    Carolina Cyclone





  • First roller coaster with five inversions: Viper, Darien Lake, Darien, New York.[14]
  • First roller coaster to operate vehicles in reverse: Racer, Kings Island.
  • First roller coaster to run stand-up trains: Dangai, Thrill Valley, Gotemba, Shizuoka, Japan.
Racer at Kings Island was the first roller coaster to operate vehicles in reverse.





  • First roller coaster with six inversions: Vortex, Kings Island.[14]






Dragon Khan at PortAventura Park, the first roller coaster with eight inversions





Oblivion at Alton Towers was the first Diving Machine roller coaster.




Millennium Force at Cedar Point was the first roller coaster to exceed 300 feet (91 m) in height and the first to use an elevator cable lift.
Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom Steel Force and Thunderhawk roller coasters, just outside Allentown, Pennsylvania. Steel Force opened in 1997 as the tallest and fastest roller coaster on the East Coast of the United States, with a first drop of 205 feet (62 m) and a top speed of 75 miles per hour (121 km/h).[19]




  • First complete-circuit roller coaster to exceed 400 feet (120 m) in height: Top Thrill Dragster, Cedar Point.
  • First roller coaster with a more than 90° vertical drop (97°): Vild-Svinet, BonBon-Land, Zealand, Denmark.
  • First roller coaster to utilize a vertical lift (not considered an elevator lift): Vild-Svinet, BonBon-Land.



  • Kingda Ka opens as the tallest roller coaster in the world.
    Furius Baco, Port Aventura













See also


  1. ^ Coker, Robert (2002). Roller Coasters: A Thrill Seeker's Guide to the Ultimate Scream Machines, Metrobooks, New York. ISBN 1586631721. pg 14
  2. ^ "Rambler New English-Russian Dictionary: "American"".
  3. ^ a b c Bennett, David (1998). Roller Coaster: Wooden and Steel Coasters, Twisters and Corkscrews. Edison, New Jersey: Chartwell Books. 9. ISBN 0-7865-0885-X
  4. ^ Meares, Joel (27 December 2011). "Catherine the Great Put Rollers on the World's First Coaster". Wired. Archived from the original on 10 June 2021. Retrieved 19 December 2021.
  5. ^ a b c Valérie RANSON-ENGUIALE, « Promenades aériennes », Histoire par l'image [en ligne], consulté le 28 Mai 2017. URL: http://www.histoire-image.org/etudes/promenades-aeriennes
  6. ^ Fierro, Alfred, Histoire et Dictionnaire de Paris, (1996). Robert Laffont, page 1051.
  7. ^ Roller Coaster History: Early Years In America. Retrieved 26 July 2007
  8. ^ Sheedy, Chris (7 January 2007). "Icons — In the Beginning... Roller-Coaster". Sunday Life (weekly supplemental magazine included in The Sun-Herald). John Fairfax Publications Pty Ltd. p. 10.
  9. ^ Rutherford, Scott (2000) The American Roller Coaster, MBI Publishing Company, Wisconsin, ISBN 0760306893.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Steven J. Urbanowicz (2002). The Roller Coaster Lover's Companion. Kensington, New York: Citadel Press. 4. ISBN 0-8065-2309-3.
  11. ^ "Patent Images". patimg2.uspto.gov.
  12. ^ "Fire rips through rollercoaster". BBC News. 7 April 2008. Retrieved 8 April 2008.
  13. ^ "Coaster Awards". Archived from the original on 17 September 2010. Retrieved 18 April 2010.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Kay, James (2007). "The History of the Inversion". CoasterGlobe. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 23 August 2007.
  15. ^ Cartmell, Robert (1987). The Incredible Scream Machine: A History of the Roller Coaster. Fairview Park, OH and Bowling Green, OH: Amusement Park Books, Inc. and Bowling Green State University Popular Press. ISBN 0879723416.
  16. ^ Tieteen kuvalehti Historia 11/2014, p.74 (in Finnish)
  17. ^ "Boomerang - Bellewaerde (Ypres, West Flanders, Flemish Region, Belgium)". rcdb.com.
  18. ^ Kay, James. "The History of the Pipeline Coaster". CoasterGlobe. Archived from the original on 26 October 2007. Retrieved 7 February 2008.
  19. ^ "Rollercoaster Database: Steel Force (Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom)". Retrieved 10 July 2008.

External links

  • Roller Coaster History - History of the roller coaster
  • Roller Coaster Patents - With links to the U.S. Patent office
  • Roller Coaster Database - Information, statistics and photos for over 1900 roller coasters throughout the world
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