Share on

4 January 1863: conquering the world on roller skates

159 years ago this week, an American called James Plimpton patented an ideal invention for getting back in shape after the Christmas festivities which was to brighten the lives of several generations of young and not-so-young people. He deserved an article!



Although James Leonard Plimpton, born in Medfield, Massachusetts on the 14th of April 1828, spent his childhood in an agricultural environment, he nevertheless had such a passion for mechanics that he fitted out a workshop for himself in a shed on his father’s farm. At just 16, he became an apprentice in a small machining workshop before quickly joining a bigger one in New Hampshire where he soon became a foreman while continuing his studies at the same time. At 21, he opened a machine construction company with his brother in Westfield, Massachusetts, before quickly moving to New York to look after their company’s local branch.

Because of his frail constitution, his doctor advised him to take up ice skating. To compensate for a problem of weak ankles and limit the risk of falls, he then invented a four-bladed skate, with two blades at the front and two at the back, somewhat like a miniature sledge, a spring enabling them the blades to move remaining flat and never on edge. Although this model unfortunately did not meet with the desired success, things turned out completely differently for his roller version…



Let’s be clear: James Plimpton was not the inventor of this system. The Belgian Jean-Joseph Merlin and the Dutchman Hans Brickner were the first people, at the beginning of the 18th century, to have the idea of attaching wooden rollers under shoes. The only problem was that their models did not allow the wearer to turn... It was to this problem that the ingenious young mechanical engineer was to provide a solution.

Wanting to continue to practice his sport outside the winter period, in 1860 he created a model based on the same principle as his ice-skating version. Four boxwood wheels were fitted on two axles articulated by a rubber spring. Tilting of the feet to the side caused the axles to converge and thus allowed the skater to turn. He was to make several improvements over the years, such as the addition of a bronze ring inside the hole of the axle and the introduction of a lubrication system to limit wear on the wheels. While all of these advances led to the filing of several patents, the very first one does indeed date from the 4th of January 1863. 



In order to promote his "Rocking Skates”, initially sold exclusively to skating rink owners who rented them to their customers, he had the idea of creating the New York Roller Skating Association and opening his own skating rinks. He thus personally designed and built the one in New York located right next to his shop. Targeting wealthy customers in particular, he gave roller skating a noble and distinguished image. Representatives of the clergy, the army, the political or press world, the main American organizations in the sector and the European nobility were invited and incorporated in the association.

And his strategy worked! Enthusiasm for roller skating quickly spread beyond the borders of the United States to Europe and then Australia. Practicing it became fashionable. In 1865, a skating rink was even opened in London and in 1867 his skates were presented at the Universal Exhibition in Paris and quickly imported. This success was amplified by their popularity among ladies and young people in general for whom they provided a new opportunity for courting…

This success naturally attracted a host of investors who themselves helped to amplify what quickly came to be seen as a phenomenon! Numerous imitators also tried to cash in on this success. James Plimpton, who had become wealthy, sued them systematically until his death in 1911.


"It’s better to step on a turtle that’s awake than on a roller skate that’s asleep."– François Cavanna



- 3 January (1851): first experiment with Foucault’s pendulum in the cellar of the French physicist Léon Foucault
- 3 January (2009): launch of Bitcoin
- 3 January (2019): the Chinese space probe Chang'e 4 becomes the first spacecraft to land on the far side of the Moon
- 4 January (1958): Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in history, re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrates
- 4 January (2004): the first probe of the American Mars Exploration Rover mission lands on Mars
- 5 January (1933): start of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
- 6 January (1838): first demonstration of the telegraph by the American inventor Samuel Morse
- 6 January (1934): first electrified railway line between Antwerp and Brussels
- 7 January (1714): the English inventor Henry Mill files the first patent for a typewriter
- 7 January (1785): the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and the American John Jeffries cross the Channel from Dover to Calais in 2 hours and 25 minutes in a balloon filled with hydrogen
- 7 January (1910): the Frenchman Hubert Latham is the first pilot to fly at an altitude of more than 1,000 meters
- 7 January (1922): first mid-air collision in history between two airliners in Oise, France
- 7 January (1927): first international telephone call between New York and London
- 7 January (1971): creation of a Ministry of the Environment in France
- 8 January 1889: Herman Hollerith patents the first data processing machine
- 9 January (1969): Iris 50, the first French computer, is presented to the public in a ceremony which marks the effective birth of computing in France