The modern-day roller coaster had its beginnings in Russia during the 1600s. Wood-framed sleds would shoot riders down 70-foot slopes on an icy hill in St. Petersburg, with simple colored lanterns decorating the way. This proved to be great fun, and the sport gained popularity. Catherine the Great had her royal sleigh outfitted with wheels so that she could enjoy the plunge in summer. The ride evolved to become a summertime activity in the Russian mountains, where adventurers would roll down long, undulating wood ramps in wheeled carts. Historians believe that the wheeled royal sleigh was the inspiration for the name “roller coaster.”
A French traveler in Russia happened upon the idea and returned to France, hoping to capitalize on it. The French advanced development of the ride. Various looping “centrifugal railway” coasters were built during the 1840s, but in 1865, a loop coaster at the Cirque Napoléon was quickly shut down after an accident. Soon thereafter, the French appeared to lose interest.
Around the same time, American inventors started advancing the idea of a gravity ride. The first successful commercial roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, debuted at Coney Island in New York in 1884. Riders climbed a tower to board a bench-like car, then rode a 600-foot track to another tower, where the vehicle was switched to a new track. The gravity-induced car toddled along at just over 6 mph, tame by today’s standards, but the ride was exhilarating for enthusiasts of the time. Thousands of roller coasters were erected, but the Depression and World War II followed, and roller coasters nearly became extinct, with numbers falling to 200 examples by 1960.
Walt Disney is often credited with reinventing the roller coaster and saving it from extinction. In 1959, Disney premiered the first steel roller coaster, presaging the advanced versions we see today. Inventors and engineers besieged the patent office with ways to make roller coasters faster, higher, and more challenging. Amusement parks built successively bigger and faster rides that took sharper turns. It seemed nothing could stop impresarios from building more thrilling coasters. Engineers can now build roller coasters that are too powerful for humans to even ride.
Gravity—It’s the Law
Roller coasters rely on gravity, which makes them fun because of its physical effects on the body. Gravity constantly pulls a body toward earth as momentum propels the train up, down, and around the track. A person feels pressure against his or her body as gravity and momentum fight for control. Scientists discuss the force of gravity in terms of g’s, with 1 g being the downward constant that everyone experiences while standing still on earth. At 2 g, a person feels twice the normal pull of gravity, with triple the pull at 3 g, and so on.
The human body can endure very high g-forces for a short time. A slap in the face imposes g-forces in the hundreds but causes no permanent damage, whereas sustaining relatively low g-forces for a long time can cause serious harm or even death. G-forces can be positive, negative, lateral, or linear. Each type of g-force brings different effects on the human body. Positive g’s accumulate at the bottom of a hill as gravity tries to keep the body moving toward the ground and the track projects the rider upward. Positive g’s, combined with a lateral component, also occur when going around a banked corner. The sharpness of the change determines the strength of the g-force. Oblivion at Alton Towers in England, the world’s first vertical-drop coaster, delivers a massive 4.5 g as the cars pull upward. At Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, riders of the Formula Rossa coaster experience 4.8 g. At such high positive g-forces, blood moves from the head to the feet and can cause a “gray-out.”
Negative g’s, are even more dangerous. Negative g’s, of up to -1 cause a pleasant, floating sensation as the train follows a downward path against an upward component of inertia. The rider feels pressure in his or her head at -1 g, and nosebleeds, severe headache, and swelling of the eyelids occur at -2 g. At -3 and -4 g, eyes bleed, vision fades, eyeballs feel as if they are popping out of the skull, and mental confusion ensues. At -5 g, humans risk losing their lives.
For safety reasons, modern roller coasters must balance fun and safety, so most produce less than -1 g. Today’s roller coasters have met the limit of maximum g-forces and permissible effects on riders. To keep roller coasters fresh and interesting, rides are being developed with novel variations of height and speed. The ride has certainly come a long way from its humble origins.
Undoubtedly, the new trend for amusement parks will be the excitement of faster rides that incorporate virtual experiences. Universal Studios Florida offers the very successful Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, for example, which is a multidimensional 3-D thrill ride that compensates for relatively low g-forces with a high-tech virtual experience.
- A brief history of roller coasters. American Coaster Enthusiasts website. http://www.aceonline.org/CoasterHistory/.
- A century of screams: the history of the roller coaster. American Experience. PBS website. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/coney/sfeature/history.html.
- Turning points in roller coaster history. University of Alaska Fairbanks. http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/211_fall2002.web.dir/shawna_sastamoinen/History.htm.
- Wall M. Roller coaster technology: ‘bigger! faster! scarier!’ BBC website. http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-24553630.