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20 January 1884: roller coasters, a diabolical invention

Since industry is one big adventure playground, let’s look back on the birth of an invention which continues to delight young and old alike today but which was first created to… fight against Satan! This week Global Industrie takes you for a ride on a roller coaster…



The history of what the French call montagnes russes began logically enough… in Russia, and more precisely in Saint-Petersburg. It was there, in the 16th century, that what the locals actually called the “little American mountain” first appeared. This was a 20-meter-high wooden slide which, in the prevailing cold, became covered with a thin layer of ice allowing people to slide down it on wicker sleds.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the sled was replaced by a carriage fitted with wheels which was quickly made to slide on rails to stop it swerving off the side. Responding to the success enjoyed by this attraction, several entrepreneurs copied it in other countries. In 1812 a company called Les Montagnes Russes thus installed one in the Belleville district of Paris. It was in the City of Light, moreover, that the first vertical loop appeared in 1846. Up till then, however, none of these projects had taken the form of a complete circuit …



In 1884, the history of roller coasters took an essential turn thanks to a certain LaMarcus Thompson, even though there had been nothing up to then to suggest that this 35-year-old native of Oho would go down in history thanks to such a trivial occupation! Far from it. Owner of a hosiery manufacturing company and a devout Christian, he was actually somewhat puritanical and was dismayed to see his beloved America succumbing to the demons of alcohol and sex… As a short Smithsonian Channel video shows, he was going through a deep spiritual crisis at the time due to the success of brothels and saloons. In that respect he was a man of his time in a period marked by the emergence of numerous temperance movements demanding that the consumption of alcohol be limited or even prohibited by law. And he asked himself the question: what could he do to lead his contemporaries away from these devilish temptations?

The answer came to him during a trip to Mauch Chunck, Pennsylvania. The locals there had got into the habit of using wagons originally employed to extract coal from the mine to move around, taking advantage of the speed of the sloping circuit. This mode of transport quickly turned into a big attraction and even became one of the most popular rides in America. For Thompson it was obvious: since Americans wanted to intoxicate their senses, they might as well do so through healthy and innocent amusement.



Upon his return, he took the risk of selling his company, even though it was prosperous, and invested the money to build the first closed-circuit roller coaster. The work began on the 20th of January 1884 and by June the first 15-meter-high prototype had been built in Coney Island, Brooklyn.

The location had not been chosen at random: it was an area famous not only for its brothels and bars but also for… its tourist hotels. It was an immediate success! Although the speed then was only 6 miles an hour, it offered an unforgettable experience for people at the time. So much so that its creator quickly built some fifty similar rides around the world. Even if, at the end of the day, this divine invention had had no impact on alcohol consumption and frequenting of whorehouses, Thompson’s good and moral intentions had made him a millionaire!

"Life is like a roller coaster. It has its ups and downs, but it’s your choice to scream or enjoy the ride."– Anonymous


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