Roller Coasters: Going for a Ride Since 1884

The Scenic Railway at Luna Park in Melbourne, Australia (Photo by Stevage via Wikimedia Commons)
The Scenic Railway at Luna Park in Melbourne, Australia (Photo by Stevage via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1884, the first purpose-built roller coaster opened on New York’s Coney Island.

Here are some things you may not have known about that first roller coaster and those that have followed it.

The origins of roller coasters can be traced to attractions called Russian mountains, which were hills of ice with slides reinforced by wooden supports.

Some say the first true roller coaster was built by order of Russia’s Catherine the Great in 1784, while others cite a pair of 1817 contraptions built in Paris.

These ideas, however, were not the inspiration for the first Coney Island coaster. The idea sprung from gravity railroads of the mid 19th century.

One railroad allowed thrill-seekers to ride an 8.7-mile downhill track for 50 cents a ride. The route was usually used to transport coal. After seeing the gravity railroad, LaMarcus Adna Thompson began work on Coney Island’s Switchback Railway.

Originally the Switchback Railway was a 600-foot one-way trip between two platforms. Later it was redesigned as a complete oval circuit.

A year later the first roller coaster with a lift hill was introduced, also at Coney Island.

The first golden age of roller coasters lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s. The pinnacle of the first period was perhaps The Cyclone, which opened at Coney Island in 1927 and remains in operation today.

Early roller coasters were contracted of wood. That changed in 1959, when the Matterhorn Bobsleds, which were constructed of steel, opened at Disneyland.

The steel construction allowed for taller and faster roller coasters, the tallest of which is now the Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey.

It reaches a height of 456 feet. It is also the second fastest roller coaster with a launch speed of 128 miles per hour. The fastest coaster is the Formula Rossa at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, which reaches speeds of 149 miles per hour. For comparison, the fastest wooden roller coaster is the Lightning Rod at Dollywood in Tennessee, which hits a top speed of 73 miles per hour.

The introduction of steel coasters also made it easier and safer for roller coasters to go upside down. The first modern roller coaster with an inversion element was the Corkscrew at California’s Knott’s Berry Farm, which opened in 1975 with two inversions. The record for inversions is now held by a coaster called The Smiler at Alton Towers in Staffordshire, England. It has 14 inversions.

Our question, what country is home to the oldest continuously operating roller coaster?

Today is Youth Day in South Africa, Engineer’s Day in Argentina and Bloomsday to James Joyce fans.

It’s World Sea Turtle Day, National Vinegar Day and National Fudge Day.

It’s the birthday of writer Joyce Carol Oates, who is 78 today; boxer Roberto Duran, who turns 65; and rapper Tupac Shakur, who was born in 1971.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1985, the top song in the U.S. was “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears For Fears.

The No. 1 movie was “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” while the novel “The Cider House Rules” by John Irving topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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