Roller Coasters: Adrenaline-fueled Architecture
600 years ago, roller coaster pioneers never would have imagined the advancements that have been made to create the roller coasters of today. The tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world is the Kingda Ka, a coaster in New Jersey that launches its passengers from zero to 128 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds (most sports cars take over four seconds to get to just 60 miles per hour). It then heaves its riders skyward at a 90-degree angle (straight up) until it reaches a height of 456 feet, over one and a half football fields, above the ground, before dropping another 418 feet (Coaster Grotto "Kingda Ka"). With that said, roller coasters are about more than just speed and height, they are about the creativity of the designers that build them, each coaster having its own unique way of producing intense thrills at a lesser risk than the average car ride. Roller coasters have evolved drastically over the years, from their primitive beginnings as Russian ice slides, to the metal monsters of today. Their combination of creativity and structural elements make them one of the purest forms of architecture.
The debate over where and when the first true roller coaster was created is a debate that is sure to continue for years to come. Most will say that the first man-made creation that uses the force of gravity for pleasure dates back to Russia, somewhere around the 1400s or earlier. These "Russian Mountains" were merely ice-coated slides made with wooden framework that people would slide down in toboggans, which were often simply blocks of ice. This concept soon became contagious among Russian villages, and eventually spread to Russian royalty. Obviously, a Russian prince wouldn't be caught dead sliding down a tiny rural slide on a block of ice; they built huge slides that were up to 50 feet high, and multiple city blocks long. The "Russian Mountains" remained the biggest thing in gravity-based thrills, until the idea spread into Western Europe (Rutherford 11-12). . In the early 1800s, France caught hold of a wheeled version of these Russian creations. France's Les Montagnes, named after "Russian Mountains" were wooden coasters that featured steel wheels, attracted numerous brave Frenchman. The opening of Paris' Aerial Walks in 1817 introduced the first lift system for the coaster's passenger vehicles. A precursor to the chain lift, the Aerial Walks lift used a cable system (Rutherford 12). The modern roller coaster's lift system has trains with teeth on the bottoms that slot into the chain lift, and a gear system allows the chain lift to haul the train to the top of the lift hill (Parker 144). In comparison to the world's first roller coaster, there is perhaps an even greater debate over what was America's first true coaster. Many will say that it is Pennsylvania's own Maunch Chunk-Summit Hill and Switch Back Railroad. The Maunch Chunk-Summit Hill and Switch Back Railroad was originally America's second railroad, and considered my many to be the greatest coaster of all time. Located in the Lehigh valley, it was originally used to transport coal from the top of Mount Pisgah to the bottom of Mount Jefferson, until Josiah white, a mining entrepreneur, had the idea of turning it into a part-time thrill ride. Because of its immediate popularity, it soon became strictly a passenger train. A steam engine would haul passengers to the top of the mountain, before letting them coast back down, with speeds rumored to reach 100 miles per hour! The reason that it was called a switch back railroad, a switch back track was located at the top-where the steam engine would let the riders coast back down. This type of track featured a dead end where the steam engine would detach its cars, allowing riders to coast down backwards. The railway went through a couple of minor track changes and name changes over the years, but managed to last from 1829 to 1937, over 100 years...
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