Early history of roller coasters

Test maintenance run of old roller coaster cars

1920’s was the golden age of the roller coasters. Over 2000 were built in that time with just a few remaining and still in operation. The example of a roller coaster from this area is the Giant Dipper in Belmont Park in San Diego. This roller coaster opened on July 4, 1925 and was designed and engineered by Frederick Church and Frank Prior. But perhaps the biggest contribution to roller coaster development can be attributed to John Miller. His patented design of underfriction wheel in 1919 allowed coaster cars to roll on very steep drops and sharp horizontal and vertical curves. This design used three sets of wheels clamped onto the track. The weight bearing wheels, the side wheels and the underfriction wheels that ran under the track and kept the coaster car from flying off. The Giant Dipper is an example of underfriction roller coaster and its cars can reach almost 90 km/h speed dropping from 18 m.

Restorations of Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster tracks

Until then, the coaster cars were using only weight bearing wheels, like trains, and needed to run in deep trough to take the lateral forces. Those roller coasters are called the side friction roller coasters. As an example, the oldest operating roller coaster Leap-The-Dips from early 1900’s is a side friction roller coaster and can reach almost 30 km/h dropping from 2.7 m.

Giant Dipper roller coaster tracks

So, the roller coasters were built before 1920’s and even in early 1800’s particularly in French gardens.

The very first ones were simply sleds ran on hills composed from rollers, perhaps giving its English name “roller coaster”. But the whole concept came from 17th century Russia were no roller hills were used but the ice hills reinforced by wood on which the sleds could be run. Hence, the name Russian Mountain is used in many languages to describe what is called a roller coaster in English language. However, in Russia the roller coaster is called an American Mountain.

Photo credits: Leszek Wrona.

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