From Russia With Love: the History of the Roller Coaster

The history of the roller coaster is more than a little loopy.


When Russian daredevils got bored sledding down hills in the 1600s, they decided to ramp things up. Literally. They started building “flying mountains”—elaborate five-story ice ramps with drops as steep as 50 degrees. The sleds were originally made from hollowed-out blocks of ice, but when the French built their own version in 1804, they added a track and wheels. The crude attraction didn’t have any safety features—and the wheels had a reputation for flying off—but those hazards actually boosted attendance! By the 1840s, centrifugal railways featured the first loop-de-loops, flipping riders around a perfect circle that created g-forces three times stronger than most modern coasters.


In 2007, Richard Rodriguez spent 17 straight days and nights riding roller coasters in Blackpool, England. He ate, drank, and slept on the rides, only taking a five-minute break every hour to shower, use the bathroom, or change clothes. (To get shut-eye, he padded the seat with foam rubber and popped in earplugs.) Five years later, Rodriguez spent 112 consecutive days on a coaster, but this time he took the night off when the park closed.


Seventy-four, apparently. In 2001, a quartet of thrill seekers traveling by helicopter visited 10 amusement parks in four states in 24 hours.


(Image credit: Mike Fernwood)

GIANT DIPPER - Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (Santa Cruz, Calif.)

Since it was built in 1924, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk’s crown jewel has entertained more than 60 million riders. Manufacturer Arthur Looff modeled the National Historic Landmark after “the thrill of a plunge down a mine shaft, a balloon ascent, a parachute jump, airplane acrobatics, a cyclone, a toboggan ride, and a ship in a storm.”

(Image credit: Royalbroil)

HADES 360 - Mt. Olympus (Wisconsin Dells, Wis.)

After a corkscrew was installed in 2013, Hades became one of the first modern wooden coasters to flip riders upside-down. One of the last times engineers tried doing that to a wooden coaster? 1895, when Coney Island’s rickety Flip Flap attracted whiplash lovers of all stripes.

MILLENNIUM FORCE - Cedar Point (Sandusky, Ohio)

The first coaster to top 300 feet, it broke 10 world records and was, for a time, the tallest, fastest, and steepest ride on the planet. It was also the first coaster to use a cable lift system— think a tow rope on a ski slope—because the traditional lift chain would have been too heavy at such a height.

(Image credit: Martin Lewison)

BIZARRO - Six Flags (Agawam, Mass.)

If Millennium Force has an arch nemesis, it’s Bizarro—it’s won the vaunted Golden Ticket Award for the best steel coaster five times (back when it was known as Superman—Ride of Steel). A few years ago, the track whipped riders between two roaring flamethrowers. (Because Bizarro sits near the Connecticut River, management had to take special measures to keep the propane tanks above the floodplain.)

(Image credit: Flickr user Patrick McGarvey)

APOLLO’S CHARIOT - Busch Gardens (Williamsburg, Va.)

When the coaster was revealed to the media, the park invited “Roman God”—the Italian model Fabio. The romance novel cover boy sat front and center, but when his car plummeted down the first drop, a goose smacked him in the face. (His nose was bloodied, but fear not: His hair was fine.)

BOULDER DASH - Lake Compounce (Bristol, Conn.)

Hidden under a grove of leaves, this wooden coaster appears harmless at first—the track rarely rises 10 feet off the ground. But teacups this is not. Boulder Dash is built into the side of a steep mountain, and it careens around trees, down hills, and over rocks for some insane airtime.


The above article by Noah Davis and Lucas Reilly is reprinted with permission from the July 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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It is Bizarro, but thanks for pointing out that I used the wrong picture. This is Bizarro, at Six Flags in New Jersey. I should have checked the fine print! Apparently, there are no usable pictures of the Bizarro at Six Flags in Massachusetts. BUT... I did find pictures of Superman—Ride of Steel, which was its former name. I will update the picture.
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