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.