Roller coasters: A history of how we love sliding down hills
While modern roller coasters are themed after everything from runaway mine carts to ancient Egyptian gods, they are all descendants of sledding. That might sound a bit mundane, but while inversions, corkscrews or banked corners weren’t (purposely) part of the original experience, the concept of a thrill ride was there from the start. This is because the so-called “Russian Mountains” weren’t simple hillsides, but large, wooden structures up to 80 feet tall that would send riders down the icy slides as fast as friction would allow, usually requiring a patch of sand at the end of the course to avoid bounding off into the woods. Enough people enjoyed the ride that a second slide was usually built adjacent to the first, but facing in the opposite direction. That way, you could slide from one to the other and avoid the long wait that modern rides now suffer from.
Holding on to speed and safety
Giant ice slides might seem like a crazy, dangerous pastime, but with the endorsement of Catherine the Great, they were an idea worth copying. French entrepreneurs built their own “Russian Mountain” in France, but without the consistently cold temperatures of a Russian winter, the slides melted too much to be reliable. The solution was to fasten wheels onto the sleds, which helped with speed but not with control or safety, as the tiny carts had nothing to keep them on the track besides a rider’s sense of balance.
The solution was the first true roller coaster. In 1817, Les Montagues Russes a Bellevilles was opened with a track that locked over and under the carts’ wheels. That way the carts could careen around corners in the way we all love without the risk of leaving the track entirely. In the same year, The Aerieal Walk opened with a similar, locked-wheel design, sparking new waves of thrill-ride innovation, although the next major iterations happened in the United States.
Looping circuits and circular steel
In 1884, a dedicated track at Coney Island in New York City was opened, called the Switchback Railway. Passengers rode on a bench in a small cart down 600 feet of undulating track, stopping at a tower at the far end to turn around. They could then ride back to their starting point, completing the ride. This was later modified to be a complete, oval-shaped loop, but it was eclipsed in 1885 by the Gravity Pleasure Road, which included a lift hill in its design. From there a sort of arms-race broke out, with designers getting every thrill they could out of their wooden tracks.
The Great Depression put the brakes on amusement innovation, and the next major step in roller coaster technology didn’t arrive until 1959. Disneyland’s Matterhorn Bobsleds was built on tubular steel tracks instead of wooden rails, which allowed for tighter turns, twists and eventually looped inversions thanks to the way it they could be fabricated in a variety of shapes without sacrificing structural integrity. At this point, it’s fair to say that fans of the original Russian Mountains might not recognize what they’ve become— while many languages refer to roller coasters as “Russian,” the Russian word for roller coaster is американские горки, or “American mountains.”
Source: History of the Roller Coaster, National Roller Coaster Museum and Archives