The History of the Rollercoaster: How did it all begin?

16 August, 2019

Your heart pounding through your chest as you slowly reach the top of a drop. The face you pull as you whoosh through the air. The sheer adrenaline flowing through your body as you step off the ride. There’s nothing like the feeling of a roller coaster, but how did they come to be, and are these thrill rides the same as they were back in the day? Below, we’ll explore the history of the roller coaster – from its early developments right through to what it is today – to see how things have changed.

Who invented the roller coaster?

The story of the roller coaster dates back to 16th and 17th century Russia. The earliest kind-of-coasters were actually hills made up of snow and ice, that cascaded down from the cold Russian mountains, with some as high as 70 feet. Those flying down these ice slides did so on sleds made of wood, or even blocks of ice, coming to a stop with the help of piles of sands at the bottom of the slope.

These could be found in the palace gardens around the capital, and they were very popular with the Russian upper-class of the time. The Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, loved the rides so much, she even had one built on her own property!

But what about roller coasters with wheels – who invented these? A lot of evidence tends to point towards the French, who brought the Russian ice slide to France. The warmer climate tended to melt the ice, and so waxed slides were built instead. Eventually, wheels were added to sleds, and these then became attached to the track.

When was the roller coaster invented?

With the advent of this design, the roller coaster had officially arrived in the form of Les Montagnes Russes a Belleville (The Russian Mountains of Belleville) – a nod to where the ride’s Russian roots – in 1812. The addition of wheels was, of course, a complete game-changer, allowing the carts to run at much higher speeds! For thrill-seekers of the time, this was all great news!

The story of the roller coaster continues with the opening of the Danish amusement park, Tivoli Gardens, in 1845. The park was a hit with the middle class and had a large wooden rollercoaster called Rutschebanen – but the ride isn’t the roller coaster as we know it today, being controlled by an operator who would sit on each turn and corner, and then hit the brakes as it glided down the hills.

10 years later, the first complete-circuit roller coaster with a lift hill was welcomed into the world. Designed by inventor Philip Hinkle, the lift hill mechanically lifted up the carriages to the highest point on the track. This made the journey to those spectacular drops pretty seamless!

Why is a roller coaster called a roller coaster?

When it comes to the origin of its name, there’s a few different stories, and so the official story isn’t 100% known. Some trace the name back to time the ice slide made its way to France. The earliest versions of this ride which had wheels were said to roll as they coasted.

However, others suggest that it originates from Stephen E. Jackson and Byron B. Floyd, the inventors of a ride located in a roller skating rink in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1887. This ride was made up of a toboggan-like sled raised to the top of a track which consisted of hundreds of, you guessed it, rollers. The sled rolled gently to the floor, leading the two inventors to dub it the roller coaster!

What was the first 4D coaster?

Skipping ahead ever-so-slightly to a different kind of technology, we come to the 4D (or four dimension) roller coasters. By this point, the roller coaster as we know it today, has been in full swing for centuries, but the 4D coaster puts a fresh spin on the old formula – literally. These wild rides allow riders to rotate horizontally, and independently, to the track. In other words, as the carts move around the bends, corners and loops of the track like a normal coaster, the cars that riders sit in spin entirely on their own today. Not for the faint of heart we say!

But which coaster was the first to do it? That accolade goes to X2, a ride found at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California, which opened the ride in 2002. On this ride, the seats that you strap into can rotate forward or backward a full 360 degrees!

Roller coaster history: The best of the rest

We’ll finish things up with a brief run through of some of roller coaster history’s biggest and most momentous developments below:

1895 – In 1895, the vertical roller coaster loop came into play. The Flip Flap Railway at Sea Lion Park, Brooklyn was the first to have this exhilarating feature. Thrill-seekers loved it, and the ride definitely paved the way for more daring roller coasters to follow.

1919 – John Miller, known as the ‘father of modern high-speed roller coasters’, designed the first under friction roller coaster in 1919. The new invention meant that the carts locked to the track helping them turn sharp angles, and reach even faster speeds.

1959 – Tubular steel was introduced to the roller coaster world. It might not sound very cool, but the new material was a complete game-changer for roller coaster design. The strong metal could be bent in any direction – allowing for the creation loops, corkscrews, and other thrilling tracks. 

1966 – The first roller coaster to have an underwater tunnel was revealed at the theme park Six Flags Over Texas. Impressive, right?

1987Oakwood Theme Park opened in Wales by a family of Pembrokeshire farmland owners. It took a year to research and create, but it was the start of something pretty special. Today it stands as the biggest theme park in Wales.

1989 – In 1989, Treetops opened at Oakwood. Offering a view  across the Welsh woodlands, if you’ve ridden this, then the roller coaster’s popularity should come as no surprise!

– Megafobia, a timeless wooden roller coaster was delivered from America to Oakwood Theme Park in 1996. Although it cost a whopping 1.7 million pounds to build, the new ride attracted 500,000 visitors for the first time!

2006 – Speed: No Limits was introduced at Oakwood Theme Park. The UK’s first beyond vertical drop rollercoaster. Speed is a Gerstlauer Eurofighter, Gerstlauer being a German manufacturer. Speed held the record for the world’s steepest roller coaster between April 13, 2006 – July 5, 2008 with a 97° drop.

Fast forward to Oakwood today, and our roller coasters are still raring to go, bringing the crowds all the thrills they can get. From Megafobia to The Creepy Crawler, there’s something for everyone to pack their day full of fun.

Have you got what it takes to brave Oakwood Theme Park?

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