As summer quickly approaches we though we would get into the theme park spirit. Enjoy our modern coasters, because it was a bumpy ride to create todays theme parks.
Image Source: Popular Mechanics
The oldest roller coasters descended from the so-called “Russian Mountains,” which were specially constructed hills of ice located especially around Saint Petersburg, Russia. Built in the 17th century, the slides were built to a height of between 70 feet (21 m) and 80 feet (24 m), consisted of a 50 degree drop, and were reinforced by wooden supports. These slides became popular with the Russian upper class. Catherine II of Russia was such a fan of these attractions that she had a few of these slides built on her own property. “Russian mountains” remains the term for roller coasters in many languages, such as Spanish (la montaña rusa), Italian (montagne russe), French (les montagnes russes) and Portuguese (montanha-russa). Ironically, the Russian term for roller coaster, американские горки (amerikanskie gorki), translates literally as “American mountains.”
There is some dispute as to who was the first to put this operation on wheels. Some historians say the first real roller coaster was built under the orders of James the 3rd in the Gardens of Oreinbaum in St. Petersburg in the year 1784. (The lawn where Catherine’s roller coaster once stood, at the Sliding Hill Pavilion, now sits vacant.). Other historians believe that the first roller coaster was built by the French. The Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville (The Russian Mountains of Belleville) constructed in Paris in 1812 and the Promenades Aeriennes both featured wheeled cars securely locked to the track, guide rails to keep them on course, and higher speeds.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 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. By 1872, the “Gravity Road” (as it became known) was providing rides to thrill-seekers for 50 cents a ride. Railway companies used similar tracks to provide amusement on days when ridership was low.
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. 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. This track design was soon replaced with an oval complete circuit. In 1885, Phillip Hinkle introduced the first complete-circuit coaster with a lift hill, the Gravity Pleasure Road, which was soon the most popular attraction at Coney Island.Not to be outdone, in 1886 LaMarcus Adna Thompson patented his design of roller coaster that included dark tunnels with painted scenery. “Scenic Railways” were to be found in amusement parks across the county.
Growing popularity and innovations
As it grew in popularity, experimentation in coaster dynamics took off. In the 1880s the concept of a vertical loop was again explored, and in 1895 the concept came into fruition with The Flip Flap, located at Sea Lion Park in Brooklyn, and shortly afterward with Loop-the-Loop at Olentangy Park near Columbus, Ohio. 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 1912, the first underfriction roller coaster was developed by John Miller. 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, England. 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 7 April 2008. 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.
The Great Depression marked the end of the first golden age of roller coasters, and theme parks in general went into decline. This lasted until 1972, when The Racer was built at Kings Island in Mason, Ohio (near Cincinnati). Designed by John Allen, the instant success of The Racer began a second golden age, which has continued to this day.
Steel roller coasters
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, 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.
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.
New designs and technologies are pushing the limits of what can be experienced on the newest coasters. Flying coasters like Tatsu and electromagnetically-launched coasters like Maverick are examples of the latest generation of technologically advanced coasters.
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 coaster of a specific kind, style, manufacturing material or unique technology; ground-breaking
- First time a particular record-breaking threshold was crossed
- Historical significance
1800 to 1899
- First coaster featuring cars that locked onto track: Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville (Russian Mountains of Belleville), Paris, France.
- First coaster to feature two cars racing each other: Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville.
- First complete-circuit coaster: Promenades Aériennes (The Aerial Walk), Paris.
- First looping coaster (non-circuit): Centrifugal Railway, Frascati Garden, Paris.
1900 to 1969
- First use of lapbar: Drop-The-Dips, Coney Island.
1970 to 1979
- The Beast: opened as the tallest, fastest and longest wooden coaster. Today it is still the longest wooden roller coaster in the world.
1980 to 1989
- First coaster with six inversions: Vortex, Kings Island.
1990 to 1999
- First coaster to reach 100 miles per hour (160 km/h): Tower of Terror II, Dreamworld, Australia.
- First coaster (non-complete circuit) over 400 feet (120 m) tall: Superman: Escape From Krypton, Six Flags Magic Mountain, California.
- First flying coaster: Skytrak (roller coaster), Granada Studios, Manchester, United Kingdom.
- First Dive coaster: Oblivion, Alton Towers, Alton, Staffordshire, United Kingdom.
- First linear motor launched inverted coaster: Volcano, The Blast Coaster, Kings Dominion.
- First linear motor launched dueling coaster: Batman & Robin: The Chiller, Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson Township, New Jersey, United States.
2000 to 2009
- First complete-circuit coaster to exceed 300 feet (91 m) in height: Millennium Force, Cedar Point.
- First coaster to use an elevator cable lift system: Millennium Force.
- First modern wooden coaster with vertical loop: “Son of Beast“, Kings Island. (Note: After an accident on July 9, 2006 the loop was removed.)
- First wooden coaster over 200 feet (60.96 m) tall: Son of Beast.
- First large-scale flying roller coaster, Stealth, California’s Great America
- First coaster with a 90° vertical drop: Dodonpa, Fuji-Q Highland, Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi, Japan.
- First coaster to use pneumatic propulsion system: Hypersonic XLC, Kings Dominion.
- First coaster to feature both a lift hill and propulsion system: California Screamin’, Disney California Adventure Park, Anaheim.
- First complete-circuit coaster to exceed 400 feet (120 m) in height: Top Thrill Dragster, Cedar Point.
- First coaster with a more than 90° vertical drop (97°): Vild-Svinet, BonBon-Land, Zealand, Denmark.
- First coaster to utilize a vertical lift (not considered an elevator lift): Vild-Svinet, BonBon-Land.
2010 to 2019