Firstly, let's answer the question 'What is a roller coaster'? The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as:
A switchback at a fair (a switchback being a railway at a fair etc), in which the train's ascents are effected by the momentum of its previous descents.
For our purposes we will combine the definitions and think of a roller coaster as being a ride which consists of some sort of vehicle on a track which uses gravity to thrill riders. Of course, there are many different ways of positioning riders so that gravity can act on them, from asking them to climb stairs to launching them skywards with the latest LIM1 powered technology.
The First Primitive Coasters
Contrary to popular belief, the US didn't invent the roller coaster. People have been sliding and rolling along terrain for fun since they first climbed down from the trees. However, the first records of organised coaster-like rides don't appear until the 15th Century. In the 1400s, enterprising residents in St Petersburg, Russia, began constructing large ice slides during the winter months. At first passengers sat on scraps of fur or hay and sand was used to slow the rider at the bottom. Gradually, their popularity spread and the slides developed into large ice-covered wooden structures with sleds used in place of the fur and hay - the first coasters according to our definition. By the 1780s, the rides had developed into a year-round attraction - thanks to the addition of sleds with wheels - and were appearing throughout Europe.
In 1816, the first 'Montagne Russe' or 'Russian Mountain' opened in Paris. These rides were essentially large, undulating slides. Passengers would climb to the top of the ride and descend in small buggies with wheels. Serious accidents were common, but such disasters usually increased the popularity of the ride - a phenomenon that lasted until the middle of the 20th Century. The first attempt at a vertical loop appeared on the 'Centrifugal Railway' in Paris in 1848. It claimed to travel at speeds approaching 150mph, an unlikely story since such a ride would need to be over 250 yards high. Indeed, not until 1997, when 'Superman: The Escape' debuted at Six Flags Magic Mountain, was the 100mph barrier broken. The 'Centrifugal Railway' was not a success.
By the mid-19th Century, these early coasters had spread throughout Europe and the first continuous circuits appeared. The trains were initially dragged back up the hill using human or animal power, but later versions used primitive winching systems. However, they were slow and after the initial novelty wore off, they declined in popularity.
The next stage in the evolution of the roller coaster began with the 'Switchback Railway'. 'Russian Mountains' had failed to take off across the Atlantic, but in 1874 the first gravity ride opened to the US public. The Mauch Chunk Railway in Pennsylvania began life as a coal transporter. However, the construction of a tunnel made it obsolete, so the owners of the mine put a passenger car on the line and began charging customers a dollar for the privilege of 'coasting' down the hill.
In 1884, the first example of what many consider to be the first 'proper' roller coaster opened at Coney Island, Brooklyn, USA. 'The Gravity Pleasure Switchback' was built by the Ohio businessman LaMarcus Thompson. It was based on plans for an 'inclined plane railway' that was patented in 1878 by Richard Knudsen, although the original was never built. The Switchback was a cross between a Russian Mountain and the Mauch Chunk Railway; two tracks stood side-by-side. The car would leave one station and gravity would take it to the end of the first track where passengers would disembark. The car would then be switched on to the second track and passengers would climb up to the second station and the return journey would be made. It was a huge success and before long, Thompson had recouped his initial investment.
Later in the same year, Charles Allcoke also designed a continuous circuit ride at Coney Island. Further advancements were made - the seating arrangements were altered so that passengers were facing forwards rather than sideways and, in 1885, Philip Hinkle introduced the first mechanical lift system. In 1887, the first figure-eight roller coaster was built at Haverhill, Massachusetts, USA, and began a popular trend in coaster design which survives to this day. One innovative coaster design featured a flat sled that ran on a track covered in wheels. This is thought by many to be the origin of the term 'roller coaster'.
During this period, many designers experimented with vertical loops. A notorious example is 'The Flip-Flap' which featured a 25-foot diameter circular loop. However, the shape of the loop (modern loops are more elliptical) generated high g-forces which caused many serious back and neck injuries and the ride was closed in 1903. The first elliptical loop was designed by Edmund Prescott in 1901 and opened as 'Loop-the-Loop' at Coney Island.
The closing years of the 19th Century saw many Switchback Railways open throughout the world. Blackpool Pleasure Beach in the UK opened one in 1891, followed a year later by a version at Cedar Point, Ohio, USA. However, none of the rides were particularly fast. Even the most modern designs consisted of nothing more than cars with wheels on the base and sides running in wooden troughs. This limited rides to maximum speeds of about 15mph - any faster and the cars would jump off the track. This design of ride is known as a 'side friction coaster'. Few original examples are left in the world. A recently restored coaster is 'The Runaway Coaster' (as it is now called) at Rotunda, UK. First built in the 1920s (and so is actually a 'modern' speedier version), the coaster once toured the German fairs. The oldest surviving example is 'Leap the Dips', a 1902 coaster at Lakemont Park, Pennsylvania, USA, which has also recently been restored.
The First Golden Age
The Infant Coaster Industry
At the turn of the 20th Century, the fledgling coaster industry was already proving to be a great success. This led to the creation of many new amusement parks. Coney Island already had several new sections, including Paul Boyton's Sea Lion Park - thought to be the first amusement park to feature a 'pay one price' entrance fee. Other Coney Island parks included Steeplechase2 and the famous Luna Park. Unfortunately, many of these parks have since been destroyed or closed - the 1900s saw several destructive fires at Coney Island. One of the first new parks to open outside New York was Frederick Ingersoll's new Luna Park in Pennsylvania. As well as creating several more Luna Parks, Ingersoll designed many coasters in his own right.
In 1907, Christian Feuchs introduced the first (relatively) high-speed coaster, which opened as 'Drop the Dip' at Ingersoll's new park. It was also the first coaster to feature a lap bar. However, the man probably best known for his coasters during this era was John Miller.
Miller began work in the coaster industry as LaMarcus Thompson's chief engineer and by the start of the 1900s, he was already designing his own rides3. He held the patents for over a hundred coaster technologies, from the safety ratchet (which is still used today) to various braking systems, structural designs, car mechanisms and even racing coasters. However, his most important innovations were 'under friction safety wheels' which he patented in 1912. These wheels fix a coaster car on to the track. For the first time, excessive speeds were possible. With Harry Baker he founded Miller and Baker Inc, which was responsible for the 'Big Dipper', 'Deep Dipper' and 'Pippin Dipper' series of coasters. A hugely modified 'Pippin Dipper' can be found at Kennywood where it was opened as 'Thunderbolt' in 1968.
Surviving examples of Miller's work include the 'Jack Rabbit' series of coasters at Clementon Lake Park (1919), Sea Breeze Amusement Park (1920) and Kennywood (1921). Many of Miller's coasters which survive have been rebuilt to such an extent that few original features remain. A good example of this is the 'Big Dipper' at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. First opened in 1923, the 'Dipper' was much more of an 'L' shape than it is now. When the 'Grand National' opened in 1935, the engineer Charles Paige rebuilt most of the 'Dipper' and now only a small section of the original remains. Although many of Miller's coasters were 'off the shelf' creations, in 1923 he designed 'Whirlwind' at Olympic Park, New Jersey, USA. It was the first coaster to be designed for a specific plot of land, a concept that is almost the norm today.
The Golden Age Begins
The 1920s were 'the first golden age' of the roller coaster. Over 1500 existed in North America and almost 2000 in the rest of the world. Innovation was the norm and designs ranged from 'autocoasters', where guests would drive their own cars around an undulating track, to 'virginia reels', where tub-shaped cars would spin down wooden troughs. 'Pinball coasters' consisted of wide inclined planes that would allow cars to pinball around the track.
One of the men responsible for this 'golden age' is Harry Traver. Traver designed many of the 'Cyclone' series of rides. Five were built (one under the name of 'Lightning'). Of Traver's coasters, the most (in)famous is the Crystal Beach 'Cyclone'. Its status is legendary among coaster enthusiasts as one of the most extreme coasters ever built. Indeed, it was so extreme that a full time nurse's station was necessary to cope with the injuries and shock that the ride induced. People queued just to watch others on the ride. Unfortunately (and not entirely surprisingly), people were more reluctant to ride and high maintenance costs caused by the extreme forces on the wooden track forced most 'Cyclone' coasters to close. The Crystal Beach 'Cyclone' was demolished in 1937. Traver deserves a special mention for being the first designer to use steel in his coasters. He realised that it was more cost-effective and durable than the traditional wooden supports that were in use at the time. Although the wooden track on the 'Cyclone' was destroyed, the steel structure remained and was used to build the 'Comet' at Great Escape ten years later. John Miller also tried steel on his Coney Island 'Thunderbolt'. A copy of the Coney Island 'Cyclone' has recently been reconstructed at Six Flags Magic Mountain, USA.
By the 1930s, there were thousands of amusement parks and travelling fairs scattered across Europe and North America, nearly all of which contained at least one coaster. However, the Great Depression in the US and the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe caused attendances to plummet and forced most parks to close. Lack of maintenance left many coasters to degrade beyond repair or burn down and they were lost forever. Between the start of the 1930s and 1972, only 120 new coasters were built in the US, while over 1500 were destroyed. It was the end of the 'First Golden Age'.
The Evolution of the Modern Coaster in the 20th Century
After the dark days of the 1930s and 1940s came the relative boom of the 1950s. With it came a new kind of way of having fun - the theme park. In 1955, Disney Land opened and four years later Arrow's4 'Matterhorn Bobsleds' debuted there. The 'Second Golden Age' was on its way.
The modern history of the roller coaster is vast. Below is a timeline of important events. Unless otherwise stated, all theme parks listed are in the US.
1955 - Disney Land, the first modern theme park opens and contains many Arrow rides.
1959 - Karl Bacon's (of Arrow) 'Matterhorn Bobsleds' opens at Disney Land. It is the first tubular steel roller coaster.
1964 - Schwarzkopf, pioneers of the vertical loop, design their first coaster.
1966 - The first 'Runaway Mine Train', designed by Arrow, opens at Six Flags, Texas.
1972 - PTC (formerly the Philadelphia Toboggan Company) build the Allen-designed 'Racer' at Paramount King's Island, sparking new interest in woodies.
1975 - Arrow's 'Corkscrew' opens at Knott's Berry Farm. It is the first modern coaster to feature an inversion.
1976 - Schwarzkopf's 'Revolution' opens at Six Flags Magic Mountain and is the first modern coaster to feature a vertical loop.
1978 - Six Flags Great Adventure opens the first coaster to feature interlocking launched loops - Arrow's 'Lightning Loops'.
1981 - The first suspended coaster opens at Paramount Kings Island - the Arrow designed 'Bat' suffers technical problems and closes soon after. Vekoma's first 'boomerang'5 coaster opens as 'Escorpion' at Reino Aventura, Mexico.
1983 - Togo's 'Stand Up Coaster' opens at Gobemba Family Land in Japan, and World of Fun put stand-up trains on Arrow's 'Screamroller' and renamed it 'Extremeroller' thus giving the world the first stand-up coasters.
1984 - The first successful suspended coasters open - Arrow's 'XLR-8' at Six Flags Astroworld and Schwartzkopf's 'Big Bad Wolf' at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg.
1985 - The world's first pipeline coaster (designed by Togo) opens at Nagashima Splashland, Japan.
1989 - The first 200 feet high coaster opens at Cedar Point. Arrow's 'Magnum XL-200' becomes the first ever 'hypercoaster'.
1990 - Walter Bolliger and Claude Mabillard's (founders of B and M) first coaster, 'Iron Wolf' opens at Six Flags Great America.
1992 - B and M's 'Batman: The Ride' opens at Six Flags Great America to become the world's first inverted coaster. Custom Coasters International (CCI - the company partly responsible for the recent interest in new wooden coasters) are formed.
1993 - 'Sky Princess', CCI's first coaster, opens at Dutch Wonderland.
1994 - Vekoma's first 'SLC'6 opens in Holland.
1995 - Anton Schwarzkopf retires.
1996 - Premier Ride's 'Outer Limits: Flight of Fear' becomes the world's first LIM powered coaster.
1997 - Vekoma's first 'Invertigo'7 opens at Paramount Great Adventure. Intamin designed the first coaster to top the 100mph mark - 'Superman: The Escape' at Six Flags Magic Mountain.
1998 - Alton Towers (UK) open 'Oblivion', designed by John Wardley and Bolliger and Mabillard. It is the world's first conventional vertical drop coaster. 'Volcano: The Blast Coaster', designed by Intamin, opens at Paramount Kings Dominion, to become the world's first powered-launch inverted coaster.
1999 - The B and M-designed 'Medusa' opens at Six Flags Great Adventure to become the world's first floorless sit-down coaster.
2000 - 'Project Stealth', designed by Vekoma, opens at Paramount Great America and becomes the world's first flying coaster. The first 'gigacoaster' opens at Cedar Point. Designed by Intamin, 'Millennium Force' is the first conventional coaster to top 300 feet and it also features the first 'overbanked turns'.
The coaster industry is an ever-changing one, with new rides and designs appearing constantly. New thrill rides that have been built in the third millennium haven't been included here. Interested readers should search for 'coasters' in their favourite search engine to find out more about the delights of air-powered, inverted mouse, fourth dimension and virtual coasters!
Related BBC Links
Discover the world's loopiest rollercoaster, Colossus at Thorpe Park.
Do roller coasters represent a danger to health?
Are some roller coasters just too scary?