Roller Coasters: The Physics and History 101

Hundreds of years ago in the 16th and 17th centuries, “roller coasters” began as huge ice slides in Russia. Some slides were as high as 70 feet as far as we know. Passengers sat on some type of carriage or sled, usually with some added fur or straw for comfort and padding, and slid down the icy slope. Applying the technique of friction, sand was used towards the end of the slide to keep the slide from going too fast and to also keep the slide from crashing. Eventually, the sleds became more ornate and were usually fashioned of wood, often with iron runners to make the sleds more elaborate, faster, and more fanciful.

Most people have heard all about the history of Coney Island and the first American roller coasters. It actually all began in the late 1800s when railway companies brainstormed ways to keep passenger usage from decreasing on the weekends. They set up parks at the end of the rail lines first with only carousels as the rides and introduced weekend and summer activities, and, of course, food stands. In 1884, the first true roller coaster was introduced to America: the gravity switchback, thought to be derived from La Marcus Adna Thompson, and charged a nickel per ride. Several more designs came out in the late 1800s as well, including the first lift hills which pulled the roller coaster car up a hill with some type of cable or pulley system. Many designers tried to incorporate the beautiful scenery that could be viewed from the train rides into the roller coaster rides, so people could experience beautiful views of rolling hills, forests, mountains, and other landscapes.

coaster history

In the early 1900s John Miller designed the first underfriction roller coaster, which held the carriage on the track and allowed for steeper slopes, more speed, and less drag. Some of the rides were not the safest and caused frequent injuries to the riders. The roaring 20s proved an even more successful time for roller coasters and excitement of theme parks, but towards the end of the decade the world was entwined in wars and the Great Depression. The parks and development of more rides declined for quite a number of years.

In Rye, New York, one of the first attempts at a planned park was a new park named “Playland.” The area for the park was lined with trees and incorporated art into its design. Rides were separated from dining areas, and children’s areas were also separated from the main areas so the noise of playing and screaming children would not become bothersome. There is also a beach where visitors can go to relax. The park is still in operation and one of the largest in the area.

The 1960s offered a period of re-growth for the amusement park industry. Freedomland in Ney York opened, as did Six Flags and amusement parks were popping up everywhere. Disney opened themeparks and many other multi-million dollar corporations such as Anheuser-Busch. Many were too costly to operate, especially those that were family-operated, and many would eventually be torn down. In the 1970s and early 80s, the most roller coasters were built in the United States since the 1920s. Dozens of wooden roller coasters were built around the United States and the world. Rides became smoother, faster, and more innovative. They were also designed to be able to promote with beautiful pictures, thus they became more symmetrical and had more elaborate designs and themes. Steel coasters were also beginning to become popular. Looping roller coasters (and “corkscrews”) also saw a big boom during this time.