The very first “roller coasters” were created in Russia in the 1600’s, and were nothing like the typical roller coaster that comes to mind today. People rode down steep ice slides on large sleds made from either wood or ice that were slowed with sand at the end of the ride. These sleds required skill to navigate down the slides, and accidents were frequent.
A Frenchman tried to cash in on the popularity of the Russian ice slides by building one in France, but the warm climate quickly ended his attempts with ice. A waxed wooden slide proved to be much more feasible, along with wooden wheeled sleds. Just as with the ice slides, the necessity of navigation skills caused many accidents, so tracks were produced to keep the sleds in line.
In the 1850’s, the first shot at a vertical loop was made in France. This “Centrifuge Railway” offered a rail car that would travel through the loop with nothing keeping it there aside from its own centripetal acceleration. Government officials quickly shut the operation down after one accident.
The beginning of American roller coasters was near the end of the 19th century when railway companies set up amusement parks at the end of their lines to increase business on the weekends. In 1884 the first real roller coaster in America was introduced: a gravity driven switchback train. Passengers would climb a set of stairs to board the car, which was then pushed from the station to travel down a hill and over a few bumps. At the bottom, the passengers got out and climbed another set of stairs while workers hoisted the car to the top of the second station. The passengers got back into the car and rode to the first station on a second track.
Another attempt at a vertical loop was tried in 1898, and was called the Flip-Flap Railway. However, the loop on this ride was a circle, as opposed to the clothoid loops that are used in roller coaster design today. This caused a problem: the forces generated by the circular loop were so strong that riders’ necks were snapped.
The beginning of the 20th Century saw great leaps in roller coaster safety. The first roller coaster to employ trains with an up-stop wheel system that held to the track rather than just sitting atop it was built in 1912. This was a huge leap as it gave the opportunity for greater speed and steeper hills. Many coasters were built through the 1920’s, but the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression and World War II saw a severe decline in their numbers.
Disneyland, America’s first theme park, opened in 1955, and brought with it a new era for amusement parks. Disney introduced the first tubular steel roller coaster, the Matterhorn, in 1959. Before this, roller coasters had always been built from wood, but the steel track was a huge improvement, offering not only greater stability, but also opening the door for loops and corkscrews.