January 20, 1885
LaMarcus Thompson opens the first roller coaster at Coney Island in New York.
The beginnings of roller coasters can be traced to ice slides in Russia, popular in the 1700s. The Mauch Chunk railway in Pennsylvania was never designed to be a pleasure ride--it was designed to transport miners through the coal fields. However, its design influenced early roller coasters as well. However, it was LaMarcus Thompson's Coney Island roller coaster that is credited with being the first commercially successful roller coaster ride. It went only 6 miles per hour. He called it the "Switchback Railway" and charged a nickel a ride. Even at such a low price, he made enough money to pay for the construction in under a year. Today's fastest roller coasters go over 120 miles per hour and feature 360 degree turns and heart-stopping heights.
For more information...
How Roller Coasters Work
From the "How Stuff Works" site, a good explanation with good graphics of the physics of roller coasters.
The Roller Coasters of Coney Island
The history of Coney Island roller coasters, including drawings of the Switchback Railway.
Early Years in America
Descriptions of early prototypes of the roller coaster, as well as Thompson's Coney Island coaster.
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