For many people, there is only one reason to go to an amusement park: the roller coaster. Some people call it the "scream machine," with good reason. The history of this ride reflects a constant search for greater and more death-defying thrills.
How does a roller coaster work?
What you may not realize as you're cruising down the track at 60 miles an hour is that the coaster has no engine. The car is pulled to the top of the first hill at the beginning of the ride, but after that the coaster must complete the ride on its own. You aren't being propelled around the track by a motor or pulled by a hitch. The conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy is what drives the roller coaster, and all of the kinetic energy you need for the ride is present once the coaster descends the first hill..
Once you're underway, different types of wheels help keep the ride smooth. Running wheels guide the coaster on the track. Friction wheels control lateral motion (movement to either side of the track). A final set of wheels keeps the coaster on the track even if it's inverted. Compressed air brakes stop the car as the ride ends.
Wooden or steel coaster: Does it make a difference?
Roller coasters can be wooden or steel, and can be looping or nonlooping. You'll notice a big difference in the ride depending on the type of material used. In general, wooden coasters are nonlooping. They're also not as tall and not as fast, and they don't feature very steep hills or as long a track as steel ones do. Wooden coasters do offer one advantage over steel coasters, assuming you're looking for palm-sweating thrills: they sway a lot more. Tubular steel coasters allow more looping, higher and steeper hills, greater drops and rolls, and faster speeds.
In the 1600s in Russia, the forerunners of present-day roller coasters were huge blocks of ice that were fashioned into sleds, with straw or fur on the icy seat for passenger comfort. Sand was used to help slow down the sled at the end of the ride to keep it from crashing, a technique based on the principle of friction. Later, more elaborate wooden sleds were built with iron runners to increase the speed and intensity of the ride.
The first American coasters
America's amusement park history begins on Coney Island in 1875. Railway companies, in search of ways to keep passenger usage up on the weekends, set up parks here at the end of the rail lines and introduced weekend and summer activities. The first rides at these parks were carousels, but in 1884, the first gravity switchback train was introduced. This was the first true roller coaster in America.
In 1912, the first underfriction roller coaster was introduced by John Miller. This design held the coaster train on the track and allowed for more speed, steeper hills, and less drag. The 1920s saw the building of some of the best roller coasters of all times. But the 1929 stock market crash, followed by the Great Depression and the Second World War, caused a decline in the parks.
A new era for roller coaster design
In 1955, the nation's first theme park opened: Disneyland. Not only did Disneyland usher in a new era for amusement parks, it also helped bring about some radical changes in roller coaster design. Up until this time, coasters were built out of wood, which limited the way loops could be handled. In 1959 Disney introduced the Matterhorn, the first tubular steel coaster. The exciting features we expect from today's coasters--loops, a corkscrew track, and stability--can be traced back to this first steel coaster.
The first successful inverted coaster was introduced in 1992, and now you can find passengers riding in coasters with their feet dangling freely below them (and occasionally above them) as they circumnavigate the track. In 1997, a coaster opened at Six Flags Magic Mountain whose design would have been considered impossible even a few years before. This scream machine is 415 feet tall and can...