A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

Note: Comments are moderated. If you include a link, your comment will not be published. As you will note, I do not accept ads on my website and that includes in comments.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Higher, Faster, and Even More Hair-raising

The Katlnaya gorka pavilion in St. Petersburg, Russia.  This building was
erected in 1762 to house a roller coaster, and remodelled in 2007.  It is a part
of Oranienbaum, a Russian royal residence and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Russian mountains were winter sled rides on hills built of lumber with several inches of ice on the surface.  These "slides" were usually 70 - 80 feet tall with a 50% drop.  Riders would climb the stairs on the back and slide down.  Parallel slides meant more riders could slide simultaneously, or riders would move on to the next one after sliding down the first.  They originated in the 17th century, and by the 18th century they were especially popular in St. Petersburg where they spread across Europe.  Eventually carts with wheels on tracks were used. Entrepreneurs brought them to Paris in 1804, calling them Les Montagnes Russes.

An early form of roller Les Montagnes Russes,
Aerial Promenades, 
in the Beaujon Gardens, Paris, circa 1817.

Most of the countries that adopted the concept called them Russian mountains:  in Portuguese, montanha-russa; in Spanish,  montaña rusa.  Ironically in Russia they are now called amerikanskie gorki.  The term roller coaster is thought to come from the fact that the early ones were fitted with rollers which the cars would coast over.  In Japan they are called jet coasters.

From a book of costumes showing visitors to the Aerial Prominades, 1817.

Roller coasters are more-or-less specially designed railroads.  In fact, two or more cars hooked together are known as a train.  Some, however, run with only one car, and the first ones did not run on a complete circuit.  The first one in the U.S. was the Mauch Chunk Gravity Railroad in Pennsylvania, which started operations in 1827.  It ran on an 8.7 mile downhill track used to transport coal.  The Gravity Road, as it was known, catered to thrill-seekers, costing 50¢ by the 1850s.  Other railway companies used the idea on similar tracks when ridership was low.

The Mauch Chunk Gravity Railroad.  Mauch Chunk was renamed Jim Thorpe.

In 1884, La Marcus Adna Thompson built a gravity switchback railway at Coney Island in Brooklyn.  Passengers climbed to the top of a platform and rode the 600 feet down to a return track, hence the "switchback".  The car had benches and went just over 6 mph.  (Today's fastest roller coaster is the Formula Rossa at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates at 150 mph.)  Others developers built oval circuits for continuous rides and more comfortable cars. Thompson, in 1886, patented a system that included dark tunnels and painted scenery.  Some of these roller coasters ran until 1954.

The Switchbank Railway in 1884.

The Great Depression ended the golden age of roller coasters as theme parks declined.  Then, in 1972, a new age began which is still thriving.  This is when The Racer was built at Kings Island in Mason, Ohio, which was an instant success.  But in between, in 1959, Disneyland introduced the Matterhorn Bobsleds, which was the first ride to use a tubular steel track.  Conventional rails were set on wooden railroad ties but tubular steel can be bent in any direction, leading to the loops and corkscrews that are the hallmark of modern roller coasters.

Disney's Matterhorn being constructed.

The early roller coasters were replaced by larger steel ones.  The current trend is building "hybrid" roller coasters that have the feel of the older "woodies" but have the safety aspects of steel.  Although they were once chain-lifted, modern roller coasters employ hydraulic, pneumatic, or electromagnetic power, enabling faster speeds.  These require much heavier maintenance.

Kingda Ka tower at Six Flags in Jackson, New Jersey
is the world's tallest roller coaster (456 feet) with the
highest drop  (418 feet).  It is 3, 118 feet long.

Although designers use many safety measures, accidents still do occur.  Injuries by mechanical failure are rare; more often they are due to riders or ride operators not following directions properly.  Undetected heart ailments account for many of the deaths.  The Brain Injury Association of America reported in 2003 that although there is a risk of brain injury to some people, the overwhelming majority of riders are not at risk.

The Formula Rossa roller coaster at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi in the
United Arab Emirates is the fastest in the world - for now.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated in 2001 that fatalities from roller coasters averaged two a year.  A study commissioned by Six Flags concluded that a person has a one in one-and-a-half-billion chance of a fatality, and the injury rates involving children's wagons, golf, and folding lawn chairs were higher.

The Tatsu, one of 18 roller coasters at Six Flags in Valencia,
California.  This site has the most roller coasters in the world.

Throughout the history of roller coasters its popularity has risen and fallen - well, just like a roller coaster.  The numbers sharply declined during the Great Depression.  But today the international race is on to built higher, faster, scarier rides than ever.

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Wikipedia.
Here is a list of roller coasters rankings from Wikipedia.


  1. I've always been a big fan of roller coasters.

  2. I was when I was young. I can't imagine 130 mph, though.