In my history of industrial design class, we were invited to explore the history of an object through a series of questions. In choosing "roller coasters" as my object, I fell down a rabbit hole of awesomeness. This is lengthy (and at times an odd piece of writing because of the structure of the assignment), but I just had so much fun working on it and hope someone else could also appreciate it!
The first roller coaster was the Gravity Switchback Railway, designed and built between 1881 and 1884. It opened to the public at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York on June 16, 1884 (Kasson 1978).Though it offered an extremely new experience at the time, rollercoasters became very popular and it was quickly dated as other engineers and thinkers turned their attention towards amusement. It was replaced by one of the first looping roller coasters, the Loop the Loop, in 1901. That coaster was eventually replaced by the Coney Island Cyclone in 1927, which is still in operation today. Figure 1 is an artist’s depiction of the Switchback Railway’s debut in 1884.
Form and Function
It consisted of two fifty-foot tall towers and two train tracks with subtle wave over a wooden structure six hundred feet long. The cars were bench-like, facing sideways. Figure 2 is an artist’s depiction of these early cars. Thompson had designed them facing this way so riders could appreciate the seaside view from a new vantage point.
Both in terms of materials and construction, it is identical to railway construction from the time, but with a smaller track that needed to support far less weight. It was made almost entirely of wood, with the exception of the braking mechanisms and pulley system. Little is mentioned about use of color and texture, but the initial towers are always depicted with striped awnings.
It was designed to carry riders down two separate hilled tracks, offering joy, thrills, and a scenic view. Even compared to knowledge of trains and gravity at the time, the first roller coaster was not very advanced, which is why it quickly outpaced by other pioneers entered the field. Riders would ascend to the top of the first tower via stairs, and take seat in one of the benches. The car would be pushed down the initial hill and gravity would propel the car to the bottom of the second tower. A braking mechanism would slow the car and make for a smoother landing. Riders would then walk up the stairs in the second tower as ride attendants raised their car up using a series of pulleys on a platform. The same group of people would then board their car back to their original starting point at the base of the first tower. The Switchback Rail is generally recorded to have reached speeds of six miles per hour, though some accounts have said as high as ten (Cartmell 1987).
Riding a roller-coaster is a very conspicuous, public behavior. Part of the thrill of the ride is experiencing it with a group of people. As a staple of amusement parks, it was designed to facilitate joy and social wellbeing. In fact, the entire aim of the project was to promote emotional well-being, as will be explained further in a later section.
The technology making this ride possible was filed for patent on September 10, 1885 and officially published on December 22 that year as the “Gravity Switch Back Railway,” (patent number 332,762.) The ride had been open for over a year before the patent was filed. Drawings from this patent are featured in Figure 3. As roller coasters became the corner stone of American amusement parks, a flurry of patents were filed in the late 19th and early 20th century, in a race to create more exciting rides (Cartmell 1987).
The significance of the first roller coaster and how it was marketed is intertwined with the story of amusement parks in general. The changes in technology and transportation that precipitated the industrial revolution led to massive changes in population density and urban culture. Suddenly there were huge numbers of people seeking fun and escapism during their off-hours.15 Amusement parks appealed to people’s need for play and make-believe in an increasingly industrial, regimented world (Register 2001).
When the first roller coaster was built, it combined the world’s train fascination with this need for amusement and retreat. Roller coasters represented our ability to harness the technological innovations of the time, not for commercial and utilitarian purposes, but to experience the world in a novel, extreme way. Suddenly we could engineer a new way of interacting with gravity and space, both physically and socially. One article documenting the history of roller coasters poetically described it as,
“The explosion of gravity rides at the century’s turn represented something more than the elaborate expansion of mindless fun. To many -perhaps most- Americans the locomotive was already a deeply poetic object, so much so that at least one foreigner observed that the average American responded to a train whistle ‘as if it were a mistress.’ One can only imagine how much more intoxicating it must have been to board these intimate trains, with their wild, expressionist curves. It must have been like waking up to a dream as big as the world” (American Heritage 1998).
Thompson’s roller coaster was an immediate success. Establishing a pattern we maintain today, eager riders would wait over three hours for their turn on the Switchback Railway (Cartmell 1987). Thompson intended his roller coaster to appeal to all of society – poor, rich, young, old – and was delighted with his creation’s reception. That does not mean everyone at the time was thrilled with the idea of amusement parks and roller coasters. They were not for the “stuffy at heart.” Some culture critics of the time described the parks and their engineered rides as an “industrial Saturnalia” and “sodoms by the sea” (Kasson 1978). One shocked rider described her experience as,
“It was something dreadful. I never was so frightened in my life and if the dear Lord will forgive me this time, I will never do so again” (Cartmell 1987).
However, roller coaster’s success persisted.
With the addition of large rides like Thompson’s, amusement parks began attracting such huge numbers that transportation systems had to evolve around them. The other effect of such popular destinations was the normalization of a public, American culture. A sense of “what is American” could be formed during these visits, especially to newly arrived immigrants. Amusement parks were in effect, playing an important role in cultural assimilation and the formation of American identity (Kasson 1978).
Design and Production
Although there is a contention among roller-coaster historians, LaMarcus Adna Thompson is credited as the “father of roller coasters.” Trains were such an integral part of the American experience at this time that many other people had thought to combine the thrill of gravity rides with train technology. Five patents were actually filed for similar technology before Thompson’s and two other rollercoasters were built, very soon after the Gravity Switchback Rail, that made huge improvements to the design (including one with circular looping track and seats facing forward.) However, he holds onto the title because he was the first to create a “purpose-built roller coaster.” People had been riding trains for fun for decades, but he was the first to actually see the role this ride could have in amusement parks and make it a reality. At the time, it would have been easy to trivialize this pursuit, but Thompson proved that not only was it possible, but it was commercially viable. With rides costing $0.05 a piece, he grossed the modern day equivalent of nearly $15,000 a day. (Cartmell 1987). Others may have contributed more significant engineering feats influencing the modern roller coaster, but Thompson was the visionary and zealous prophet behind roller coaster’s ubiquitousness.
Thompson believed that society was rapidly changing in response to industrial production and it was more important now, than ever, to create wholesome diversions in which men and children would be excited to participate. He famously said,
"Many of the evils of society, much of the vice and crime which we deplore come from the degrading nature of amusements…to substitute something better, something clean and wholesome, and persuade men to choose it, is worthy of all endeavor. We can offer sunshine that glows bright in the afterthought, and scatters the darkness of the tenement for the price of a nickel or a dime." -L.A. Thompson (Potter 2013).
This belief is partly due to the stress incurred during the first phase of his career in the garment industry. He and a business partner devised a way to create seamless stockings and hosiery. When demands skyrocketed, they quickly had to scale up production. Managing the demands of this business that grew faster than he could control took quite a toll on Thompson. After a few years, he had to leave the business and seek early retirement in Arizona. However, his curious mind grew restless and he begin to think about how his passion for technology could be used to help people like him, and society at large, deal with the demands of industrial production.
The historical antecedents of Thompson’s roller coaster are both in the railway system and other gravity rides, such as the Russian Mountains. Rising to popularity in 15th-16th century St. Petersburg, Russian Mountains were tall, curved slides made of ice that were ridden down on sleds. However, it was taking a ride on the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway that inspired his creation. This was a section of train track developed for commercial purposes that began to attract hundreds of tourists, seeking a thrill ride. Figure 4 features the steep hills of the Mauch Chunk Railway. Seeing the delighted crowds at the train, Thompson was inspired to create a ride of his own.
Having already earned a considerable fortune in his early business endeavors, Thompson self-financed the project, designing and managing construction entirely on his own. He paid for the right to build on the covetable Coney Island property, chosen for its positioning in New York City, where Thompson’s new idea would be exposed to huge numbers of people. Although little historical documentation exists of how the ride was constructed, it is reasonable to assume that relatively trained labor was easy to find since the construction process so closely resembled that of train tracks. Thompson was at a rush to be the first person to build roller coaster, as many other inventors followed close behind him. It turns out the risk was worth taking because within three weeks of operation, the ride had paid for itself (Entertainment Designer 2011).
L.A. Thompson achieved great financial success with the debut of the Gravity Switchback Railway, but his creation was quickly outpaced by similar rides with better technology. Only a few months after his ride’s 1884 debut, Charles Alcoke opened a new coaster, also in Coney Island. Alcoke’s design (see Figure 5) was built in a similar fashion and offered a similar experience. It was meant to offer an interactive scenic view of the seashore, with sideways facing benches and and a track moving at low speeds. However, he improved the experience by engineering a way to make the ride into a continuous loop, as opposed to descending down one hill, climbing stairs while the cars were hoisted to the second hill, and descending downward again. The crowd response was immediate as Coney Island visitors flocked to Alcoke’s ride in increasing droves. Thompson’s once covetable, money-making machine was made nearly obsolete overnight. His meager profits completely disappeared after a third roller coaster pioneer, Phillip Hinkle opened up a new ride in 1885 (Cartmell 47).
Hinkle’s roller coaster is defined by many as the “first modern roller coaster.” In addition to using a continuous track, like Alcoke’s, he incorporated a hoist that would lift cars, with riders inside, up a tall hill. See Figure 6 for an illustration of this mechanism from the patent filings. This initial climb not only enabled him to achieve faster speeds, but generated an emotional tension that is still a hallmark of roller coaster design today. Faster speeds also required him to face the cars forwards, turning riders’ attention to the thrill itself, rather than the picturesque seaside. Hinkle’s coaster was, in effect, the first coast built for thrills, not for scenic tours.
What is most interesting about the different rides emerging around this time is that they are exploring two different goals for the rider experience: thrills or amusement (or diversion vs. inversion), a tension which ride designers are still exploring today. “Thrill seeking” designers were aiming to use the increasing body of knowledge around physics and the manipulation of velocity, centrifugal force, and g-forces to achieve rides that were taller, faster, navigated more precarious turns, and pushed our sense of what is possible with every twist and loop. Philip Hinkle, along with designers such as Lina Beecher and Edward Prescott who pioneered looping coasters, brought technological innovations from the railroad industry to the world of roller coasters, pushed the amusement park industry to adapt the latest technology and safety mechanism from railroads. “Amusement seeking” designers were not driven by speed or heights, but by what riders would experience while they were on board. It was in this arena that Thompson continued to thrive.
After seeing his competitor’s successes with escalating thrills, he decided to pursue a different direction – Scenic Railways. In collaboration with engineer John Miller and another designer James A. Griffiths, he founded the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company and produced elaborate Scenic Railways across the world. As mentioned in Phase I, his original intention with the Gravity Switchback Railway was to create a calming diversion for the new, hectic industrial world, so he kept his sites on light thrills and scenic views. But these rides were not just for people to appreciate the natural landscape. They involved the creation of elaborate tableaus, panoramas, and Biblical scenes. See Figure 7 for an advertising of his magnum opus, the Venice Scenic Railway. When it came to creating immersive environments, Thompson spared no expense or efforts. Artists and set designers were brought in to create elaborate, convincing illusions of some of history’s grandest moments. Cars would trigger lights or other electrical effects that would animate scenes seemingly by magic. Though legal battles with Griffiths over proprietary claims for technology they developed together would plague the latter portion of his career, Thompson established a legacy for creating larger than life environments that had huge influences on future ride designers. John Allen, an iconic roller coaster designer of the 60’s/70’s said,
“I remember being at Luna Park as a kid with my father. They had a big Scenic Railway and the cars went into a big dragon’s mouth, but you would never see them come out. That impressed me when I was a kid… He got me into this business with that dragon.”
Whether they were design for thrills or amusement, roller coasters were targeted towards the same user, a newly minted urban dweller looking for diversion during their time off work. As amusement parks became more ubiquitous and urban populations swelled, the section of the population they attracted increased. Some would prefer Thompson’s leisurely, immersive Scenic Railways and others would prefer sheer speed and thrills, but all were interested in experiencing the world in new ways. Riders were quickly becoming more savvy and accustomed to greater thrills. There was a tremendous excitement for “what could come next.” One Coney Island investor referred to coasters from 1880 – 1920 as “weeds that popped up as fast as we tore them down” (Cartmell 66). Adventure and instability characterized the early 20th century as rapidly improving engineering feats and huge demand for new thrill experiences ushered in the “Golden Age of Roller Coasters.”
Enthusiasm for thrill rides grew very steadily from 1884 onward, but the 1920s are characterized as the “Golden Age of Roller Coasters” due to the sheer number of coasters that were in existence and their centrality in American leisure. Historians conservatively estimate that over 1,500 roller coaster were operating during the twenties (Cartmell 137), compared to the 663 in the United States today (Roller Coaster Census Report). The experimental rides that preceded were perfected by the start of the decade and paved the way for the frenetic, fun-loving Roaring Twenties. Roller coasters were such a fitting metaphor for times, the fast-paced highs and lows that pushed our limits for sheer amusement.
The most iconic roller coaster of the twenties still in operation today is the Coney Island Cyclone, which opened on June 26, 1927. It features 2,640 feet of track, six fan turns, and twelve drops, including an eighty-five foot initial climb. It could reach speeds up to sixty miles per hour. The design and construction of this coaster cost between $146,000-$170,000 ($1.9 and $2.3 million) in today’s dollars. Rides cost $0.25 a ride, or about $3.50 in today’s dollars. While it’s popularity would rise and fall with the times, it’s iconic status within the most well-known seaside retreat enabled the owners to keep it continuously operating. Ownership changed hands several times, but now it is owned by the city of New York and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
As with many trends that reached their peak in the 1920s, the Golden Age of Roller Coasters ended with the Great Depression. However, unlike other industries, the amusement park world did not experience a post-war boom. By the end of World War II, seaside retreats and their iconic rides, the embodiment of both industrial-era possibilities and decadent twenties Americana, seemed like relics of the past. Without large crowds demanding new thrills, many parks were closed down and historically significant rides were destroyed. Roller coasters and amusement parks will never hold the same position they once held at their height in the 1920s, but the destination parks, built around themes, would emerge in the early 1960s, bringing the rides to new heights.
 The history of looping roller coasters is fascinating subset of this larger story. Many roller coaster designers had figured out how to safely make a complete loop or inversion by 1895. This was a huge achievement in terms of our ability to manipulate centrifugal force, but the coasters using this technology were deeply unpopular and unprofitable at the time. Looping on a wooden track created significant neck pain and engineers could only figure out how to make the rides work with seating for two or four people, thus these rides failed socially and financially. It was not until rides developed steel tubular tracking that we could make inversions comfortable and affordable, nearly 80 years afterwards!