Roller Coasters Then and Now

A few weeks ago, I visited Coney Island for the first time in years. It was the perfect summer day — ice cream for my kids, a cold beer for my husband and me, hot dogs for all! We rode the rides, we put our feet in the water, we got a little sunburnt. Whenever I’m there, it makes me wish I had a time machine and could see Coney in all its different, joyous iterations (instead, I just find myself scrolling through vintage photos, like these from Life Magazine). It’s pretty wild to think about strolling the boardwalk in the 1950s or watching a wooden looping roller coaster in action from back in the early 1900s. I mean, what (literally) screams summer more emphatically than releasing a glorious, guttural yowl as your body lurches ahead of your stomach while you barrel down a rickety theme park roller coaster?

Last week we shared a fun video from Vox about how roller coaster loops were initially circular, and later redesigned to be safer and more durable. The video drew many of its examples from Coney Island roller coasters of the past (and present). If you’re a Coney coaster history fan like myself (niche, I know) – check out this piece from Culture Trip for some more fun tidbits.

If your interest in roller coaster history skews a bit more general, we recommend checking out this article from PBS – A Century of Screams: The History of the Roller Coaster. The piece provides a broader historical and engineering context of roller coasters within the railway manufacturing sector of the Industrial era, and shows how roller coaster designers drew inspiration from coal mining carts and large passenger rails. It also discusses some roller-coaster-specific innovations like the under-friction wheel (developed by John Miller in 1912).

The French continued to deliver many important advances in coaster technology throughout the early 19th century, but oddly enough, they seemed to lose interest just as they were getting started. That they did little to publicize their achievements only made matters worse for American inventors, who, after stumbling onto the idea of the gravity ride, had no choice but to work blind, recreating what had already been accomplished.

When the properietors of Mauch Chunk railway, in eastern Pennsylvania, began operations in the 1820s, their mission was not entertainment but coal mining, and their first passengers were mules. (Adams, 14) Herded into a train laden with coal, these lucky beasts coasted from the top of Mount Pisgah down to a canal, then hauled the train back up for another go.

By 1844, a return track had been laid, and the system was dubbed the Switchback. But as the mines expanded throughout the neighboring mountains, the Switchback eventually lost its usefulness. And so, in 1870, in a bout of Yankee shrewdness, the railway was converted from a miner’s helper to a tourist attraction.

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