If you’ve been to a theme park in your lifetime, then the chances are that you’ll have experienced the thrill of the rollercoasters. These long stretches of suspended rail have been winding their way through amusement attractions for the best part of a century – and they’ve been getting progressively faster and more elaborate throughout that time.
Like the infamous yeast-borne spread, the rollercoaster divides opinion – some find them terrifying, some find them exhilarating; some find them tedious, some find them mind blowing. Whatever your opinion, it’s clear that the ‘coaster has had a considerable impact on the landscape of the modern theme park – both in the figurative and quite literal sense.
As strange as it may seem, there was once a time when theme parks didn’t contain any rollercoasters at all. People would simply walk around and distract themselves with more traditional carnival attractions, which by modern standards might seem positively prehistoric – most involved tossing a ball into a hole or a hoop onto a stick. You’d be able to look up at the skyline without catching a glimpse of an enormous metal serpent, and your afternoon would not be sound tracked by distant screaming and rumbling sounds.
When you consider how enormous and expensive a rollercoaster would have been during that time, it’s easy to see why park operators might have been reluctant to take a risk. And so the first proto-rollercoasters would be built from less complicated materials. In the 17th century, Russian carnival-goers in St Petersburg would encounter enormous mounds of ice, down which they’d be able to slide in a specially-made toboggan.
As time went by, these ‘Russian Mountains’ would grow so large that they had to be re-enforced with wooden supports, and the carts that ran on them grew wheels. Eventually, the icy component of the Russian mountain had entirely melted away, revealing the mechanical structure beneath. It was around this time, at the start of the 19th century, that the first rollercoasters began to emerge in Paris, under the name ‘Russian Mountains’.
The 19th century was a period of enormous technological advancement, with railways being at the centre. In the US, railways with sharp drops enjoyed the custom of thrillseekers, and this caused inventors to warm to the idea of an intentionally vertiginous track.
The most notable early example of this was at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. This attraction saw a pair of towers joined by a slope. Riders would pay five cents for the pleasure of descending the 600ft track to the lower tower, before their carts were towed back to the top on another ‘switchback’ track. This rollercoaster was, appropriately enough, dubbed the ‘Switchback Railway’
Of course, going back and forth along one fixed route isn’t quite as fun as going around in a complete circuit, and so it wasn’t long before the first wooden circuit rollercoasters began to enter circulation, cropping up at fairground attractions across the US and Europe. After the end of the First World War, the wooden rollercoaster was ubiquitous at fairgrounds – and many of these early specimens endure to this day, most notably the Scenic Railway at Margate, the UK’s older wooden rollercoaster.
You might reasonably assume that these surviving rollercoasters were the cutting edge for their time – but actually, this period saw an immense amount of ambition among rollercoaster designers. In order to be crowned the most thrilling of all the thrill rides, designers would attempt things like loop-the-loops – even though the wooden supports were not up to the task. Consequently, these early looping coasters suffered a lot of accidents, and so theme park operators began to drop them. It would not be until the materials used in rollercoaster construction improved that such looping coasters became feasible.
Of course, this was the Jazz Age, a time of great plenty. But shortly afterward came the American great depression, which meant that few people had the funds available to indulge themselves in thrill rides. Consequently, this golden age of rollercoasters was brought to an abrupt end: the dwindling numbers of people coming through the turnstiles could no longer justify the construction of more rollercoasters – and so the time of the rollercoaster came to an end.
This decline would persist until well after the Second World War. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the technology enjoyed a second renaissance – with the construction of ‘The Racer’ in King’s Island, Ohio, the work of John C. Allen, one of the few designers still left from the rollercoaster’s first period of success.
The Racer would prompt an upsurge in rollercoaster activity which persists to this day – and access to new and better materials meant that designers of this generation could create things that were beyond the means of the last.
Wooden rails, as we’ve seen, were not without their disadvantages. They could be shaped only in very limited ways. Moreover, they’re difficult to work with. Designing a wooden rollercoaster to even gently curve involves quite a lot of pondering where the next plank should go – steel simplifies everything. It’s lightweight, which means that it’s no longer necessary to build an enormous structure to support the track; and it can be manipulated to perform all sorts of contortions in a manner that’s safe and sustainable – at least, relative to its wooden predecessors.
While many of today’s most extreme and ambitious rides are on the other side of the Atlantic (and in oil-rich Gulf States), the UK is also home to a proud tradition of rollercoasters. If you’re heading to Skegness this summer, then you’ll find plenty of them at Fantasy Island, Skegness, which is home to the Jubilee Odyssey and the Millennium. The former is among the world’s tallest inverted rollercoasters, and has recently enjoyed a yellow-and-grey makeover. If you’re looking for somewhere to enjoy the sunshine and some high-speed looping rails, then you’ll find few better places.