We think of roller coasters as being all-American. And in many ways they are. They are such a beloved part of our culture, amusement parks and ride fans will be celebrating National Roller Coaster Day on August 16Â (don’t forget to send your favorite enthusiast a greeting card and a couple of park passes).
However, as with many things in our melting-pot country, the origins of the thrill machines can actually be tracked back to Europe. The record is a bit murky, but some historians contend that this is the 200th anniversary of the rides. There are accounts of two circa-1817 attractions in Paris that we would recognize today as roller coasters. The gravity- and people-powered rides sent passengers in wheeled carts soaring down wooden tracks.
It’s significant to note that the attractions were known as “Russian mountains.” There may have been similar coaster-like rides in France or elsewhere in Europe as early as 1799. Regardless, they were inspired by events that took place many years earlier.
“The DNA of roller coasters traces back to the mid-1600s when the Russians developed ice slides, a very simple form of gravity-powered thrills,” says Robert Coker, author of Roller Coasters: A Thrill Seeker’s Guide to the Ultimate Scream MachinesÂ and senior show writer for Super 78 Studios, an attraction design company. Riders would board sleds made out of hollowed-out ice blocks and descend timber chutes that were packed with snow and ice. The Russian ice slides were popular among the aristocracy, including Catherine the Great who commissioned one of her own.
To this day, roller coasters are known generically in many countries as “Russian…