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A Brief Examination of the Basics of the Roller Coaster

07/14/12 at 09:13pm in A Brief Examination of the Basics of the Roller Coaster (Latest Edit: 11/01/13 at 06:13pm by Thomas.)
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     I've compiled the basic, essential knowledge that I believe every member of the coaster enthusiast community should know (or anyone else who is interested in historical development for that matter). It is brief, but contains a lot of information. I hope you enjoy it and any critiques are welcome. I will include a list of places you can go for further reading on the subject at the end of this post.

Now, without further ado, I present:

The Evolution of the Roller Coaster

     They’re swift; they’re statuesque; they’re sensational. They are roller coasters. For centuries, these thrill machines have entertained people all over the globe. The origin of the modern roller coaster is not known exactly, but historians have a pretty good timeline in place that is accepted by most of the coaster enthusiast world. It all started in Russia during the turn of the fifteenth century. A local “sport” of sliding on a piece of wood down an icy slope was gaining popularity among the townspeople, as well as the noblemen. Soon after, these ice slides became a major production. Seventy-foot tall wooden structures featuring slides coated in packed snow and a layer of ice were a typical sight at Russian festivals. Some slides even featured sleds made of ice blocks with carved seats lined with wool to increase the speed.


     The idea of sliding down an artificial hill on a little sled was brought to France by Napoleon’s soldiers, who had spent time in Russia and enjoyed the local entertainment. The French loved the idea and were soon building “Les Montagnes Russes” (Russian Mountains) in their homeland. The French slides varied greatly from their Russian cousins. They featured dry, curving slides with wheeled cars. After the French, the idea of the roller coaster moved throughout Europe and to America. A coal mine in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania had built a railway car system consisting of mules that hauled the cars to the top of a mountain where they were loaded and then sent to the bottom with the power of gravity. In 1829, the mine’s owner, Josiah White, conceived the idea to charge people for a ride down the 6 mile long track; the American public was hooked, and the amusement industry was born.


     Due to the growing popularity of the roller coaster throughout the civilized world, many changes had to be made to their design. The public wanted them closer to home, more exciting, and safer. Amusement parks were popping up on beaches in America and England. A plethora of roller coaster designers and companies arose to meet the public’s demand for better roller coasters. America emerged as the place to be for any roller coaster designer, with Coney Island in New York as its capital of amusement. The roller coaster has evolved in three main ways since its beginning: design, safety, and construction.


     The early American roller coasters had no set definition or design plan. Roller coasters were initially drawn by hand and took into account the terrain they were built on and any other structures nearby. They quickly evolved to make the experience more pleasant for their riders. LaMarcus Thompson was inspired by the success of the Mauch Chunk railway and decided to build a smaller attraction with a similar experience in Coney Island in 1884. His “Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway” consisted of two straight, parallel tracks with small hills traveling in opposite directions; it was supported by wooden trestles and had two covered station buildings at each end. Guests would climb the stairs to the top of the station to board the ride. The car would leave from the top of one station, and at the bottom of the last hill, the guests would get off, and the ride’s operators would push the car back to the top of the other station where it would be switched to the other side of that station to start over again. This design made it difficult for the workers because they had to push the heavy cars uphill and change them to separate tracks after every ride. Charles Alcoke noticed these problems, and introduced a coaster that ran in a continuous circuit, called an “out-and-back” layout. His “Serpentine Railway” opened later in 1884, and featured sideways bench seats so the guests could enjoy the view while being whisked along at 12 miles per hour. But, both of these Coney Island coasters were trumped in 1885 by Phillip Hinkle’s new steam powered cable lift system that he put on his “Gravity Pleasure Road” on Coney Island. This breakthrough allowed guests to board on the ground and saved the operators the trouble of pushing heavy cars around. Hinkle’s new ride changed the idea that roller coasters should be about viewing scenery to being more concerned about the ride’s thrill instead.


     To compete with these new advances, Thompson created a whole new experience he dubbed the “Scenic Railway.” It featured the latest roller coaster technology and was surrounded by extensive scenery including caves, electric lights, and different scenes that riders would pass through. His new coaster was also the first to feature more than one car hooked together, called a train. This new design soon became the industry standard and several companies emerged, determined to create bigger, better thrills. Many other coaster designs emerged, including side-friction coasters and racing coasters (two identical tracks built side-by-side on the same frame). Most coasters still featured only small “dips” in the track, until “Drop-the-Dip” opened on Coney Island in 1907; it featured steep, tall drops that led riders speeding into sweeping curves.


     The world of roller coasters was forever changed by a man named John Miller. He was considered by many to be the greatest coaster builder ever; he held over fifty patents on roller coaster safety devices and other features. Among those patents, the most important were the “upstop wheel,” the locking lap bar, and the “safety dog, which will be explained later.” Because his designs were patented, Miller was able to build more thrilling, dynamic rides all over the country without much competition. Miller helped launch the roller coaster into its Golden Age in the 1920’s. He also introduced a new style of ride called a bobsled coaster with the help of Norman Bartlet. It was made of a curved wooden chute-like track that the cars could slide side-to-side freely on through the ride’s curving course. During this time, more than 1,500 roller coasters were operating throughout the United States. Unfortunately, the Great Depression and World War II nearly brought an end to the roller coaster industry; hundreds of parks closed in the U.S., and their roller coasters either rotted or were dismantled.


     Parks continued to close all over America. The only ones that survived were those that were built outside the major cities, because more middle-class Americans were moving to the suburbs. During the 1950’s small steel frame and steel track coasters (similar to Wild Mouse coasters of today) grew in popularity, but weren’t very thrilling or reliable. The roller coaster renaissance occurred after Walt Disney introduced the world’s first large scale, tubular steel tracked roller coaster, “Matterhorn Bobsled,” at Disneyland in 1959. His new California getaway created a new idea of the “theme park,” which was divided into differently themed sections. He did not want his park to just be a collection of noisy dangerous rides, he wanted his guests to have a unique experience. Disney knew when he came up with the idea of his bobsled coaster that it would have to be unlike any other ever made before. The original steel-tracked coasters were made of solid steel beams that could only be bent slightly. So, he turned to a new company called Arrow Development. They thought up the innovative idea to use hollow steel tubes attached with a series of ties and changed the roller coaster world forever. To make the ride quieter and smoother, Arrow also developed steel wheels coated with polyurethane. Arrow also placed the train’s center of gravity lower to make it more stable.


     Ron Toomer joined Arrow Dynamics (Arrow Development’s later name) in 1965 to design roller coasters using their new tubular track. He created the first roller coaster to feature a “corkscrew” style inversion in 1975. In 1978, Ron Toomer designed Loch Ness Monster, which opened at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. It was the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world when it opened and the first to feature interlocking loops. The legendary coaster essentially started the roller coaster battle (parks constantly trying to outdo their competition by building the biggest, fastest, or tallest roller coasters). Besides creating numerous multi-inversion roller coasters, Toomer also created a new style of ride in which the riders rode in swinging cars beneath the track, called suspended coasters. The first successful suspended coaster was the Big Bad Wolf, also at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, which opened in 1984. Arrow later went on to develop hyper coasters, which are known for their towering heights and rolling hills.


     Steel was the new medium for most of the world’s coaster designers from the seventies onward. Companies like Schwarzkopf liked steel coasters because they could be easily disassembled and reassembled. They invented the first successful vertical looping coaster in 1976 and the first launching roller coaster, propelled by dropping a 40 ton weight attached to a cable attached to the coaster’s train, at Kings Dominion in 1977; it was known as “King Kobra.” King Kobra influenced Arrow to design their own launching loop coaster and Vekoma to design the famous forwards and backwards “boomerang” style coaster. One of the greatest new age roller coaster companies, B&M (Bollinger & Mabillard), debuted in 1990 with their spin on the stand up coaster. Their products differed from their competition because of their more precisely engineered track featuring a box-shaped central rail and four-across seating. Their ultra smooth steel model range soon expanded to include the inverted coaster (where riders ride beneath the track), a new type of ride that they invented. The largest of these inverted coasters is Alpengeist, which opened in 1997 at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. B&M is also famous for their hyper coasters (Apollo’s Chariot), traditional sit-down looping coasters, floorless coasters (no floor under rider’s feet; on top of the track), flying coasters (riders ride lying down), and dive-machines.


     Although steel was very popular, wooden coasters were not left out of the rebirth of the public’s interest in roller coasters. Several new companies emerged to breathe new life into the old, classic style of roller coaster. Some attempted to recreate the look and feel of golden age coasters, while others wanted to modernize “woodies” by making taller, faster, and more like steel hyper coasters. Leading into the 21st century, the newly created launch systems, linear synchronous motors (LSM) and linear induction motors (LIM), paved the way for a series of record-breaking roller coasters. They use electromagnetic motors to propel coaster trains to truly astounding speeds. One company, called Intamin AG saw the potential in these new systems and has created several thrilling rides utilizing them. One of their most recognizable is “Volcano: The Blast Coaster” at Kings Dominion, which uses LIM to shoot riders out of the top of a fire shooting volcano. Quite recently, they introduced “Kingda Ka” at Six Flags Great Adventure; it is the world’s tallest coaster standing 456 feet tall. It uses a hydraulic launching system to accelerate riders to 128 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds. Riders travel straight up and down the ride’s first hill and then crest a smaller gentle hill into the brake run. Last year, Intamin opened Formula Rossa at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi. It speeds riders to nearly 150 miles per hour in four seconds and requires safety goggles to be worn while riding. It then winds through its rolling hill and sweeping turn filled course through the desert and back to the station. Today, roller coasters are designed and drawn on computers, the forces and surrounding landscapes are simulated and the computer can warn the designers if an element is too intense. Most parks even release video renderings of their coasters before they open.


     “A roller coaster is a balance between safety and sensation. Naturally, the ride should be as safe as possible." Since the modern roller coaster’s debut in the gardens of Paris, engineers have been working to make them safer. The original problem with the French designs was that the cars were frequently flung from the tracks and the riders severely injured. To fix this, the cars’ axles were extended into grooves cut into the ride’s guide rails. The Mauch Chunk railway was an influence on American roller coaster builders; they used metal tracks and wheels similar to those on actual railroad cars. The coasters were slower and had more passengers than the French slides, so cars flying off the track wasn’t a major problem that American designers initially took into account. The only real safety features on the early American coasters were the handles on the sides of the benches that riders could hold on to. These train-tracked coasters had very limited maneuverability because they only rested on top of the track, especially over hills and around sharp turns. Side friction coasters were soon introduced to combat this problem. They featured two sets of tracks: one wooden set on the bottom and one vertical piece on either side of the cars, which had wheels on the sides and bottom. Each track was covered with a thin sheet of steel to keep the coaster running smoother. The side friction coasters became the safest through the corners, but still would jump over fast paced peaks.


     If it wasn’t for John Miller’s safety innovations, the roller coaster may have never evolved to what it is today. To solve the problem of ejecting cars, he invented the upstop wheel. This simple invention was just a sideways facing wheel attached under the roller coaster cars that fit underneath a metal beam (under-friction rail) attached to the inside of the wooden track on each side. To solve the problem of ejecting riders, Miller invented a locking safety bar that stretched across the laps of 2 riders (one row) and held them in place throughout the duration of the ride. His safety dog invention prevented the train from rolling back down the hill in the event of a cable snap or chain break. It consisted of a pivoting block on the bottom of the train (the dog) and a ratchet system on the side of the lift chain. Miller’s devices were the only major advances in coaster safety through their golden age in the 1920’s. His “chain dog” system has remained almost exactly the same after all these years. But, his wheel system was eventually replaced by a system with wheels on the top of, on the side of, and underneath the under-friction rails. Similar wheel systems are used on steel coasters, except they are attached to the single round tube instead. His lap bars also changed to individual lap bars on woodies, and over the shoulder harnesses on looping roller coasters.


     Brakes have also been an important part of roller coaster safety since they changed to faster continuous circuit designs. Original brakes consisted of two steel beams, one on the car, and one on a section of the track; a lever would be pulled, either by someone on the train or in the station, that would press one into the other to stop the ride. This system didn’t work well when wet, and relied on an operator to pay attention to the trains’ location. The next type of breaks came out in the 1970’s, called squeeze brakes. A brass fin attached on the train passes between two metal plates that squeeze together to slow the train. These systems are powered by pneumatics and work better when wet. The newest type of break in use is the magnetic brake. This system consists of an alloy fin attached to the train that passes through a series of electromagnets. They are completely wear and water proof. Some launching coasters even feature retractable magnetic brakes up the launch section in case the train fails to clear the first hill and rolls back down towards the station.


     Perhaps the most important modern safety device in place on roller coasters is the block system. It consists of a computer (sometimes two: one for backup), sensors placed on the track throughout the ride’s course, and a mid course brake run (or MCBR). It constantly monitors the position of the trains on the track and even the restraints on every seat. If the computer detects something wrong with the ride (like a train stuck at a certain point or a loose harness) it either won’t dispatch the train from the station, will stop the train on the lift, or will stop it at the MCBR until the problem is resolved. This system prevents train collisions and eliminates any operator error that could occur from break operation or harness inspection. Safety is also regulated by the American Society of Testing Methods. The ASTM requires manuals to be written by the ride manufacturers regarding inspection and maintenance procedures for the parks to follow. Most large roller coasters are inspected daily. Maintenance teams check the lift chains, brakes, rails, ties, trains, block systems, and check for any rotten wood or loose bolts.


     Ever since the idea of the roller coaster left the slopes of Russian hills, these pleasure rides have been constructed. Initially, they consisted of simple wooden structures placed on top of the dirt wherever they were built. When the Parisians borrowed the idea, the roller coaster’s construction changed to a more aesthetically pleasing form. The tracks consisted of wooden boards placed perpendicular to the direction of travel and had two beams on either side of the car’s path to keep it going without hitting the railings or falling off the side. To support the track, walls were built on either side all the way down to the ground; it resembled long curving building because of its solid walls, windows, and decorated station area. In America, the Mauch Chunk railway had a big influence on the construction of roller coasters. The rides were built predominately on beaches, where the land was already clear. The main support beams were placed in holes in the ground and secured by dirt, or cement on later models. The track consisted of metal beams similar to railroad track and was placed on top of a wooden framework attached to the main beams. This construction remained relatively unchanged until side-friction coasters debuted. They feature wooden track with flat steel rails to make the ride smoother. Miller’s new wheel configuration allowed track to be made out of several layers of wood that could be more easily bent into more complex designs. His more compact coasters could be built in different locations such as valleys and gullies.


     Roller coasters are divided mainly into two groups: wood and steel. The type of roller coaster depends on which type of track the coaster has. There have been some hybrid coasters that feature either wooden track on a framework made of steel beams or steel track built on a traditional wooden framework. But, for the most part, coasters are either all wood or all steel. Modern wooden roller coasters go through a much more involved construction process than they used to. Once the final design is agreed upon by the park and manufacturer, the difficult work begins. The site is cleared of any trees or other structures that will be in the roller coaster’s path. Then, concrete footers are carefully poured in the various areas specified by the roller coaster’s plans. The beams are usually made of Douglas fir or yellow pine that is coated to prevent rotting. Once they arrive on site, the crews begin to assemble the trestles and attach them to the concrete footers. Different pieces are either bolted or nailed together, depending on how much stress they will be put under. After the framework, the track will be installed. It is made of layers of boards that are nailed one on top the other after being bent to the rides curving shape. The boards are then covered with the flat steel rails that get screwed into place. After the track is complete, the brakes and other technological equipment are installed like the block system and lift chain motors. The trains are the last things to go on before the ride is extensively tested. To test the ride, the trains are run loaded with plastic “water dummies” that are shaped like people and filled with water to simulate human riders. Once the coaster is deemed safe and survivable, the park will open it to the public. Steel coasters are constructed in a very similar manner. The land is cleared and the footers are poured the same way (except steel coasters require larger, deeper footers because they are heavier). The ride’s manufacturers create the track and supports at their factories, paint it, and ship it to the site. The supports are attached to the concrete footers with bolts, the track is attached to the supports with bolts, and the individual track segments are bolted together. Because steel track is manufactured, the brakes are already built into the track. Walkways on the coaster’s break runs and lift segment are installed along with the lift chain. The ride is then tested just like a wooden one would be.


     Roller Coasters have come a long way in their nearly 400-year history. They leave a memory, good or bad, with anyone who comes in contact with them. Whether they twist their riders through dizzying amounts of inversions or undulate gracefully through natural scenery, roller coasters are the ultimate blend of engineering and creativity. Today, there are nearly 2,600 roller coasters operating around the globe. It’s impossible to say what the future holds for these wonders of human entertainment. The trend of building the biggest and baddest could continue until they can be made no larger or the new trend of fast, terrain-hugging coasters could catch on. All that’s important is that these marvels continue to be produced and offer quality thrills to those who enjoy them.


For further reading on the subject:

"Roller Coaster: Wooden and Steel Coasters, Twisters, and Corkscrews"-by David Bennett

"Roller Coasters, or, I Had So Much Fun, I Almost Puked"-by Nick Cook

"The American Roller Coaster"-by Scott Rutherford

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So, um, this is pretty much one of the greatest things ever posted to these forums. Very, very well done.

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I concur, enough so that a simple thanks wasn't enough. It deserves a bump so newer members to the boards will hopefully see it and have a chance to read.

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Agreed, an amazing well written piece.

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It's so beautiful... :'D

Alpenghost, do you plan on becoming an engineer?

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I don't really do "plans"...

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Oh, Blushing Oops. Just a thought I misinterpreted.

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