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On This Day in History, January 20: Roots of the Roller Coaster at Coney


What could be a more appropriate locale for the inventor of the roller coaster than Coney Island? LaMarcus Adna (L.A.) Thompson patented the thrilling riding device on Jan. 20, 1885. His coaster was 450 feet long with the highest drop being 30 feet. (Not quite the  same coaster we ride today.)

Thompson’s device was patterned after the 1878 patent of another Brooklynite, Richard Knudsen, who named his device an “inclined-plane railway.” His ride consisted of two parallel tracks with undulating hills on which coaster cars holding four passengers ran by gravity. At the end of the ride a lift mechanism raised the cars back to the higher level and into place for another ride.

Thompson’s “Switchback Railway,” with cars holding 10 passengers each, quickly became popular and highly profitable. At a nickel a ride, Thompson’s receipts exceeded $600 a day, and he recovered his original investment in three weeks. By 1888 he had built nearly 50 coasters in the U.S. and Europe.

Thompson faced stiff competition at Coney Island from Charles Alcoke, who invented the first oval coaster track, which returned riders non-stop to the starting position. Another Coney Island coaster developed by Philip Hinckle boasted a chain elevator system to convey loaded cars up the first incline. Hinckle’s advance was the spark that ignited the development of the giant coasters dominating today’s amusement parks.

Thompson was quick to respond to the competition, first by incorporating the enhancements of his rivals, then by inventing a safety device: automatic cable grips, fixed under the cars, which grasped or released the lift cable when cars passed over strategically placed triggers. Thus the grips prevented cars from rolling if an emergency stop was necessary. Thompson also linked two cars together, forming the first roller coaster “train” and incidentally doubling the capacity of his ride.

He patented 30 improvements to the gravity ride. He also constructed a tunnel over a portion of the tracks to create a frightening darkness, which was suddenly illuminated by recently invented electric lights to reveal exotic scenes painted on the walls. Coney Island thrill rides loved to advertise with such slogans as: “WILL SHE THROW HER ARMS AROUND YOUR NECK AND YELL? WELL, I GUESS, YES!”

Thompson recognized and exploited all the ingredients of a successful amusement ride. His coasters combined an appearance of danger with actual safety, thrilled riders with exhilarating speed, and allowed the public to intimately experience the Industrial Revolution’s new technologies of gears, steel and dazzling electric light.

He also paid careful attention to capacity, a factor he quickly learned was critical to a ride’s survival. He was also a utopian visionary. Like most of the great amusement entrepreneurs after him, he considered his devices to be socially uplifting as well as entertaining.

So, to all the men mentioned above we owe a debt of gratitude the next time we thrill to Coney Island’s famous Cyclone.

This article was written by Vernon Parker (1923-2004)

January 20, 2012 - 1:32pm


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