Related Resources

Information about roller coaster history and selected rides.

How Rollercoasters Work
TLC article on how rollercoasters work.

Roller Coaster Database
A searchable database of roller coaster statistics, covering more than 450 rides.

Roller Coaster History


In the 1600s in Russia, the forerunners of present-day roller coasters were huge blocks of ice that were fashioned into sleds, with straw or fur on the icy seat for passenger comfort. Sand was used to help slow down the sled at the end of the ride to keep it from crashing, a technique based on the principle of friction. Later, more elaborate wooden sleds were built with iron runners to increase the speed and intensity of the ride.

The first American coasters
America's amusement park history begins on Coney Island in 1875. Railway companies, in search of ways to keep passenger usage up on the weekends, set up parks here at the end of the rail lines and introduced weekend and summer activities. The first rides at these parks were carousels, but in 1884, the first gravity switchback train was introduced. This was the first true roller coaster in America.

In 1912, the first underfriction roller coaster was introduced by John Miller. This design held the coaster train on the track and allowed for more speed, steeper hills, and less drag. The 1920s saw the building of some of the best roller coasters of all times. But the 1929 stock market crash, followed by the Great Depression and the Second World War, caused a decline in the parks.

A new era for roller coaster design
In 1955, the nation's first theme park opened: Disneyland. Not only did Disneyland usher in a new era for amusement parks, it also helped bring about some radical changes in roller coaster design. Up until this time, coasters were built out of wood, which limited the way loops could be handled. In 1959 Disney introduced the Matterhorn, the first tubular steel coaster. The exciting features we expect from today's coasters--loops, a corkscrew track, and stability--can be traced back to this first steel coaster.

The first successful inverted coaster was introduced in 1992, and now you can find passengers riding in coasters with their feet dangling freely below them (and occasionally above them) as they circumnavigate the track. In 1997, a coaster opened at Six Flags Magic Mountain whose design would have been considered impossible even a few years before. This scream machine is 415 feet tall and can reach a speed of 100 miles per hour. Technology, working with the laws of physics, continues to push what is possible in ride design.

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"Amusement Park Physics" is inspired by programs from The Mechanical Universe...and Beyond.