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A Short History of Roller Coasters

Today, they are high-tech marvels rising more than one hundred feet in the air with tubular steel tracks, loops, corkscrews and boomerangs. Their riders are hurled through space at 60 miles per hour -- while sitting, standing or suspended from an overhead track.

Their roots are still with us today -- majestic wooden labyrinths with steep rises and swooping plunges and superstructures that look like delicately balanced matchsticks. Steel and wooden roller coasters may look different, but there is much they have in common. All exist to exhilarate and terrify. The exhilaration began with Russian Mountains, in the 15th and 16th centuries. They were ice slides built near Russian towns, some as high 70 feet in the air. The track was ice and the sleds was ice, with straw stuffed in chiseled hollows to serve as seats. The ride -- and the sleds -- became more elaborate as Russian royalty adopted the idea.

The first wheeled roller coaster was invented in Russia too, built in 1784 in St. Petersburg. The rides then made their way to Paris, where a wheeled coaster attraction was opened in 1804. But there were problems. The wheels often fell off and the cars did not always stop at the end of the track.

It was in Paris where the phrase roller coaster originated. Early rides used tracks made of rollers and sleds with runners -- thus the art of roller coasting. The name stuck after runners were replaced with wheels.

Early coaster rides came in two parts. Riders rolled down one hill to the bottom and then walked up a second hill to get enough height for the return trip. The coasters were dragged uphill by attendants.

The first ride resembling modern roller coasters opened in Paris in 1817. Called Promenades Aeriennes, or Aerial Walks, it had two separate, continuous tracks. Its cars were locked onto the track and reached speeds of 40 mph. The speed gave the coasters enough momentum to complete a circular track and return to the starting point.

America s first coasters were a bit tamer. The first roller coaster ride in America was a gravity-powered mine train used to haul coal through the mountains of Pennsylvania. It was called the Mauch Chunk Railway, and after the mine shut down, the railway became a full-time attraction. Hundreds of people paid a nickel each for the six-mile-per-hour trip downhill. Mules pulled the cars uphill and shared the ride down with passengers.

The first specially built roller coaster in America was the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway built by La Marcus Adna Thompson in 1884 at Coney Island. The ride was a series of leisurely wooden waves and passengers paid a nickel each to sit sideways in cars that reached a top speed of six miles-per-hour. Thompson recovered his $1,600 investment in three weeks, and his success made for roller coaster mania in the United States.

Within a few years, Americans re-invented a circular track for coasters. Another American, Phillip Hinckle, invented a steam-powered chain lift to tug coasters to new heights -- and new downhill speeds. As inventors worked to make coasters better and faster, someone got the idea that it would be fun to turn riders upside down. The first loop was built in Paris in 1846 and called the Centrifugal Railway. The ride was tested with sandbags, monkeys, flowers, eggs and glasses of water before humans were allowed on board.

Similar rides appeared in America in the early 1900s -- but the strain and speed necessary to get cars through the loop proved too much for passengers and loops disappeared until the 1970s.

The 1920s were the golden age of roller coasters. Large, wooden figure-eight tracks were popular and newly-invented safety devices allowed coasters to go faster and more furiously. By 1929, there were more than 1,500 roller coasters in the world.

It was in 1927 that the benchmark for roller coasters was built. Called The Cyclone, and built at Coney Island, it featured an 85-foot plunge and incredible 60-degree angles. Today, the Cyclone is still an industry standard.

Roller coasters suffered along with everything else during the Great Depression. Amusement park attendance was down and owners could not afford to keep coasters in good repair. Rides were abandoned or torn down. By 1960, there were fewer than 200 coasters in the United States.

Then a man named Walt Disney decided to build a theme part in California. With Disneyland came a revival of amusement parks -- and, later, roller coasters.

The first tubular steel-tracked coaster was Disney's Matterhorn Bobsled Ride, built in 1959. Steel rides were quieter -- but more importantly, they allowed designers to build twists, turns and other thrills not possible with wood coasters.

Roller coaster fans mark the advent of a corkscrew-shaped ride in 1975 and a perfected, tear-drop-shaped loop in 1976 with the same passion as historians mark the Renaissance.

As theme park attendance rose, wooden coasters became popular again, too. These grand visions of the past reached higher into the sky at the same time their metal descendants torqued and twisted riders through weirder and faster paths.

Today, the roller coaster industry belongs to engineers and computers. There is talk of rides that will exceed 100 miles-per-hour. The only limit will be what physics -- and the human body -- will allow.

Milestones

A Chronology of Important Developments  

15th and 16th Centuries First gravity rides were constructed in Russia
Middle 18th Century Russian gravity rides on wheels
1817 First coasters with wheels locked onto tracks are built in France
1846 First Centrifugal Loop is built in France
1873 U.S. Mauch Chunk Railway becomes exclusively a passenger ride
1884 First known U.S. roller coaster opens at Coney Island in Brooklyn
1885 Philip Hinckle invents a mechanical hoist for cars
1907 First high-speed coaster opens at Coney Island
1959 First tubular steel track roller coaster built at Disneyland
1984 Advent of the first successful stand-up coaster at Paramount's Kings Island and the first successful suspended coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg
1992 First successful inverted coaster introduced at Six Flags Great America 
1995/96 Approximately 100 new coasters built worldwide

The Who, What, Where and Weird

Hey you! Looking for some deeper meaning in all of this roller coaster stuff! Want some unusual angles? Here are some ideas!

Why do people do this to themselves? Think about it. You get strapped into a metal bucket and hurled around a track at incredible speeds. You go up. You go down. You get whipped around. Then you get back on and do it again. Why? Because you need to. Let's face it. Life can be dull. Roller coasters change that for a couple of minutes. They let you push your personal edge. But don't take our word for it. Talk to some of these people:

1. Dr. Roller Coaster: We didn't make this name up. He comes with it. The man is a psychiatrist who can tell you why some people are driven to get on roller coasters. He, himself, is one of them. His real name is Glenn Wilson. You can reach him at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, England. His telephone number is 44/1717035411.

2. Marie L. Miller: You will want to call this woman. She is the oldest member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts -- we'll let her tell you just how old. She also is a former vaudeville star. Marie has been on hundreds of roller coasters. She lives in Washington, NJ, and you can contact her at (908) 689-2992.

3. Dr. Robert Cartmell: Dr. Cartmell has written a book on roller coasters called The Incredible Scream Machine. He must know a lot about roller coasters, because his book is pretty thick. He is a professor at the State University of New York at Albany, and his phone number is (518) 489-7647.

Fans and the things they do.

Imagine people so dedicated to roller coasters that they work them into major life events. Picture such things as bridal veils flapping in the wind. These people can help:

1. The Rev. Cliff Herring: Want to get married on a roller coaster? Rev. Herring is your guy. He has performed many coaster weddings and can tell you how the bride is able to hold on to her flowers and other cool stuff. He lives in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania and his telephone number is (610) 266-1169.

2. Matt and Betsy Crowther: This happy couple got married on a roller coaster, April 1990, in Georgia. They're still happy. You can reach them at (404) 588-9015.

Who builds these things anyway?

Roller coasters ain't cheap. Modern coasters can take two- to three-years to design and can cost millions to build. Recent designs have topped the $8 million mark. The design process has gone from trial and error to high-tech computer imagery. Here is a list of roller coaster manufacturers and suppliers:

1. Arrow Dynamics, Inc., Clearfield, UT, USA (801) 825-1611 Ron Toomer, Consultant Director

2. Baynum Painting, Inc., Covington, KY, USA (606) 491-9800 Chris Baynum, President

3. Bolliger & Mabillard Consulting Engineers, Monthey, Switzerland 41-257-21580 Walter Bolliger, President

4. Custom Coasters International, Inc., West Chester, OH, USA (513) 755-0626 Denise Dinn Larrick, Owner/President

5. F.A.B. Freizeit-Anlagen-Bau s.a.r.l., Luxembourg 352/471083 Rolf Dupmann, General Manager

6. FCC Construction, Inc., San Diego, CA, USA (619) 673-6390 David A. Phillips, President

7. Great Coasters International, Santa Cruz, CA, USA (408) 464-9551 Mike Boodley, President

8. Intamin AG, Wollerau, Switzerland 41/17869111 R. Spieldiener, President

9. Interpark s.r.l., Spilamberto, Italy 39/59785000 Giulio Demaria, President

10. John F. Pierce Associates. Dallas, TX, USA (214) 871-2872 John Pierce, President

11. Mack GmbH & Co. Waldkirch, Germany 49/768120000 Franz Mack, Owner

12. Maurer Sohne. Manchen, Germany 49/89323940 Hans Beutler, Managing Director

13. Maxifoto International B.V, Energieweg 10d, 5145NW Waalwijk, The Netherlands + 31 (0) 416 671717  Fax  + 31 (0) 416 671718 Peter C. Meininger, Director

14. Miler Coaster Co., Inc. Portland, OR (503) 256-3019 Fred Miler, President

15. Molina & Son/ Machine & Metal Works, Inc. Miami, FL,USA (305) 634-2735 Manuel Diaz, President

16. Morgan Manufacturing. LaSelva Beach, CA, USA (408) 724-8686 Dana Morgan, President (Dana's father, Edgar Morgan from Scotts Valley, CA, USA co-designed the first coaster with tubular steel tracks for Disneyland.)

17. O.D. Hopkins Associates, Inc., Contoocook, NH, USA (603) 746-4131 Jerry Pendleton, President

18. Pax-Park Ltd., Moscow, Russia 7/0954904864 Vladimir Gnezdilov, President

19. Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters, Inc., Lansdale, PA, USA (215) 362-4700 Tom Rebbie, President

20. Roller Coaster Corp. of America, Atlanta, GA (770) 448-7931 Michael Black, President

21. Sanoyas Hishino Meisho Corp., Osaka, Japan 81/62014052 Isao Ohono, President

22. S&MC s.r.I./SMC Structures and Machines 39/522514476 Construction s.r.I., Reggio Emilia, Italy; Andrea Mazzeranghi, Co-owner/Managing Director

23.Togo International, Inc., Middletown, OH, USA (513) 772-8408 Tom Yamada, President

24. Vekoma International B.V., The Netherlands 31/47429222 Roger P.E.G. Houben, Vice President of Marketing and Sales

25. Zamperla, Inc., Parsippany, NJ, USA (201) 334-8133 Chris Sisco, Marketing

Psssst! Wanna buy a coaster?

There is a used-roller coaster market out there. Imagine buying a coaster, taking it apart, moving it and putting it back up again. It happens regularly. Parks move coasters because it can be cheaper than building a new one and they get a proven design. Plus, the American Coaster Enthusiasts organization devotes a lot of time and energy towards the effort of preserving old coasters so that they may be enjoyed by future generations. Here are a few examples:

1. Knoebels Amusement Resort, Elysburg, PA, USA (717) 672-2572 Dick Knoebel, President This park was the first modern-day park to move a wooden roller coaster. It bought a coaster in Texas and moved it to Pennsylvania.

2. Premier Parks, Oklahoma City, OK, USA (405) 478-2412 Gary Story, Chief Operating Officer One Premier Park moved a roller coaster from Missouri to Oklahoma and another moved a coaster from Massachusetts to Maryland.

3.T he Great Escape, Lake George, NY, USA (518) 792-3500 Charles R. Wood, CEO This park moved a coaster from Canada to the United States.

4. Tom Halterman, Philadelphia, PA, USA (215) 665-0366 Tom is ACE's preservation director and can talk about moving

Roller Coasters and Safety

They raise you more than 100 feet in the air and send you shrieking down a hill at 50 mph -- yet their wood seems so delicate and their metal so strangely twisted. And as you clack- clack-clack your way to the top of the first hill and feel the pause before the downward rush begins, a thought may run through your mind:

So are roller coasters safe?

The Numbers Show Safety Statistics show that roller coasters are quite safe. And behind the statistics are built-in safety features and armies of specially-trained technicians who spend their days making sure coasters stay safe.

Park officials make safety a top priority -- both because it is the right thing to do and because a park cannot afford an accident.

"We cannot run and hide if we have an accident," said Andy Quinn, a spokesman for Kennywood Park, in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, USA. "We want peace of mind, our patrons want peace of mind and our insurance company wants peace of mind." Estimates from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and surveys conducted for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions show that more than 270 million visits are made to permanent U.S. parks and attractions each year. Yet less than .00002 percent of all visitors are injured as a result of being on amusement park rides -- coasters included.

The CPSC estimates there are between 3,000 to 3,500 accidents each year involving permanent amusement rides. Of those, just 2 percent are serious enough to require overnight hospitalization. There are an average three fatalities per-year related to amusement park rides -- or one fatality in every 90 million park visits.

But CPSC and other studies show that only a small portion of ride-related injuries are caused by design, operation or maintenance problems. Most are the result of horseplay, patron negligence or situations unrelated to the operation or condition of the ride.

Maintenance is Key to Keeping Coasters Safe

Parks divide their safety inspection programs into daily, weekly, monthly and yearly activities. They follow detailed manufacturer guidelines for inspection and safety -- and many parks use outside specialty companies to periodically re-inspect coasters and the work of full-time park employees.

Beyond park inspection programs, more than 85 percent of all permanent parks are subject to additional government codes and inspection requirements.

At most parks, technicians begin inspecting rides long before those who will enjoy them are awake. The daily safety inspection of roller coasters can take longer than four hours.

"We inspect every length of track, every car and every lap bar," said Dan West, Rides Maintenance Manager for Paramount s Kings Dominion Park, in Doswell, VA, USA. "Each (maintenance) worker has the right to shut down a ride. They will not let that ride operate if it is not safe." Workers walk the tracks twice -- once to check the left side and once to check the right side. They look for loose bolts and track spikes, cracked wood and any other problem that may have occurred during the night. They inspect the lift chain and braking mechanisms and they inspect the cars for loose bolts, cracks or safety devices that need attention.

Each day, the coaster is first sent around the track empty, then with technicians aboard. Technicians listen for changes in sounds the coaster makes -- sounds that might signal a loose bolt or track spike.

Monthly inspections are a more detailed look at the coaster s machinery and track. And yearly inspections involve taking every coaster car apart and rebuilding it, replacing wood that has shown wear and replacing track that may show wear.

At least once per year, most parks X-ray their track or use magnetic scanners to check for metal stress or welds that need attention.

The daily inspection of tubular steel metal coasters is slightly different from that for wooden coasters. Technicians cannot walk the entire track. Instead, they use high-power binoculars to check joints and key metal parts that would otherwise be out of reach.

Technicians know just how tight key bolt assemblies are, and use binoculars to literally count the number of threads left exposed after the bolt has been tightened. If the number of exposed threads changes, technicians know the bolts must be tightened.

Design Safety

A wooden roller coaster is built using many wood boards of various sizes bolted together to form a beam that rests on top of supports. It is that beam that supports the metal track that coasters glide along -- and some estimates show that the structures of wooden coasters are overbuilt by at least 25 percent.

There are three wheels on every roller coaster -- running wheels, or the main wheels on which the train runs, friction wheels, which help control side-to-side motion of the roller coaster, and upstop wheels, which are underneath the track and make it impossible for the coaster to leave the track -- even if inverted.

As the roller coaster is pulled up its first hill by the lift chain, there are safety devices that click into a set of metal dogs (or stairs) on either side of the chain to prevent the coaster from rolling backward should the chain stop.

And after the coaster has completed its ride and is headed into the station, a series of brakes, operated by compressed air and complete with backups, slows the coaster and brings it to a stop so that riders can get off.

Year of the Roller Coaster

January 11, 1996-- The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, along with the American Coaster Enthusiasts, has named 1996 as the International Year of the Roller Coaster. The year will be filled with tributes to roller coasters across the world and other events to honor what is the ultimate ride of exhilaration.

Roller coasters have been with us since the 15th century and they still represent our best attempt at the ultimate thrill, said IAAPA president Geoffrey Thompson. The rest of life is so complicated. But roller coasters are simple. They are pure fun. They are part of our culture -- and it s time we recognize them.

Technology and a renewed interest in leisure and recreation have meant a resurgence for roller coasters. The number of coasters worldwide peaked in the early 1900s, with about 1,500, and dropped to just a few hundred during the 1960s.

Now, all we have to do is go to any theme park, or amusement park and we can hear the roar of coasters and the screams of riders, said Thompson. Millions of people now enjoy the thrill of roller coasters, and new wood and steel coasters are under construction everywhere.

Currently, there are an estimated 500 coasters worldwide with more than 50 new projects underway in 1996.

Roller coasters can be traced to 15th and16th century Russia, where people built ice slides and used hollowed-out blocks of ice as the first coaster cars. The first commercial roller coasters appeared in France during the early 1800s and the first specially-built U.S. coaster was constructed in 1884.

There are two kinds of roller coasters -- those with tubular metal tracks that take riders through high-speed loops, corkscrews and boomerangs, and wooden coasters that tower over parks and feature swooping plunges and matchstick-like construction.

We are in the best of times for roller coasters, said Thompson. Engineers working with computers allow us to create the safest, wildest rides ever. The only limits are what people are willing to ride. And people are willing to do some pretty intense things.

Restoration efforts are underway to preserve the world s great wooden roller coasters and advances in metal roller coasters allow riders to do everything from stand or be suspended as they ride. In 1996, the oldest wooden roller coaster, located at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pennsylvania, will be restored as the newest generation of steel roller coasters debuts at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, in Florida.

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions is the largest international trade association for permanently-situated amusement facilities worldwide. IAAPA represents more than 4,000 facility, manufacturer and individual members in more than 72 countries, including most major amusement parks and attractions in the United States.

The American Coaster Enthusiasts is an all volunteer, not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation, appreciation and enjoyment of the roller coaster. Founded in 1978, the organization has approximately 5,000 members worldwide.

This article reproduced with permission from International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions

   

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