About this Article
Written by: Jeff Wurfel, Mark Garciano
Written on: April 1st, 2000
Tags: aerospace engineering, physics, sports & recreation, entertainment
Thumbnail by: WillMcC/Wikimedia Common
About the Author
Mark Garciano was a junior majoring in Computer Science. Jeff Wurfel had an acting stint as a character in the play "Foot Talk" that he both wrote and assistant directed. His heroes are Carl Sagan, Optimus Prime, and Derek Jeter. He plans on "buying the Clippers and turning that franchise around."
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Volume I Issue I > Roller Coasters
Millions of people ride roller coasters every year and have turned the roller coaster business into a billion dollar industry. Usually, while the passengers are whizzing around on the hills of the coaster they aren't thinking about the designers that made the rides possible or the laws of physics that coasters are based on. Roller coasters have a long history that dates back to the 1700's and come in many different forms. The evolution of the roller coaster has made them unbelievably fast and monstrously huge. The best is yet to come as technological advances continually raise the bar for speed, size, and most importantly - safety.


There are three types of people in this world: those who love roller coasters, those who like roller coasters, and those who get nauseous when they look at one. A roller coaster gives its riders an experience that nature never intended humans to have. Passengers can go faster than most people can in cars, sometimes upside down, all on a track that is smaller than a highway lane and higher than most office buildings (Fig. 1). These marvels of human ingenuity make the daredevils crave more and at the same time make the faint of heart woozy. Despite the fact that roller coasters are a significant engineering development, most people know little about them besides the fact that you require a certain minimum height to ride them. Roller coasters have come a long way since their invention. To allow them to be massive and yet go fast, engineers must come up with foolproof designs with the intent of always going a step further in giving the people what they want, bigger and faster.
WillMcC/Wikimedia Common
Figure 1: Roller coasters such as this one, found in Wild Adventures, Georgia, USA, draw crowds of thrill-seekers every summer.

From Ice Slides to Modern Coasters

Roller coasters have a long history dating back to eighteenth century Russia. Their roots come from Russian Ice slides, which were slides made of ice found at most fairs. Riders used wooden or ice carts to make it down these perilous rides. A French businessman attempted to bring this idea to France but the climate would not permit it, and he was left with a "slurpee slide" (a slide with most of the ice having melted). He modified his design by using waxed wood with a wooden cart on rollers. Early models were extremely dangerous with accidents occurring frequently. However, the interesting thing was that the more accidents that happened the more people were drawn to the rides.
In America, coal miners were using a small-scale railway system called the Mauch Chunk Railway to transfer coal back and forth. At first the only occupants of the Mauch Chunk Railway were the coal and mules to haul the carts back up. Soon, people got the ingenuous idea that one could use these systems as recreational rides for people. Thrill seekers started paying $1 to ride up to the top of hill from where they were released and sent back down with just gravity as the power. These rides were going faster than 100 miles an hour on 40 mile long tracks, faster and longer than any modern version and almost as safe. In 1870 the coal miners started using steam engines and underground tunnels leaving the Mauch Chunk Railway to the tourists. Eventually a hotel and restaurant were built on the top of the mountain so that people could relax and get a meal before their ride down [1].
The first true coaster came in 1890 with Marcus Thompson's invention of the switchback railway, in which passengers would climb a flight of stairs to ride wooden carts down a series of bumps. Once at the end, the passengers walked up another flight of stairs and the cart was switched onto a track that was going in the opposite direction. It wasn't long until a version was built that did not require the switching of tracks. In the early part of the twentieth century many different coaster ideas were being put into use, most of which died out for safety reasons or general disinterest by the public; leap-the-gap coasters, Virginia Reels (in which people rode rotating carts), and Ticklers were some of these. In 1959 Disneyland opened Matterhorn Mountain, the first roller coaster made out of steel. Since then many new features have been added to roller coasters including a safe loop-the-loop and various stand up models [1].