They started out as 80-foot slides down man-made ice mountains in 17th century Russia. Over the next 200 years, the sensational rides earned admiration and screams all across Europe. On August 16, 1898, Edwin Prescott patented the first U.S. model with vertical loops. The American Coaster Enthusiasts organization honored his innovation in 1986 by designating August 16 as Roller Coaster Day.
While Prescott gave thrill-seekers around the globe even more ups and downs, he wasn’t the first to be fascinated by inclined railway rides. Coney Island had already debuted America’s first coaster two years earlier. The core technology hasn’t changed much since the early 1900s, but we do enjoy much safer rides today.
We don’t worry about running off the rails, thanks to early French designers who locked roller coaster wheels into track grooves. Phillip Hinkle gets credit too. His 1884 modification added chain lift systems to coaster undercarriages. We don’t have to hike up dizzying heights and clamber into perched cars, all while trying not to look down.
Actually, things did look down for roller coasters during the Depression. Feeding families took precedence over amusement park fun. Two world wars also changed how we focused on entertainment. What had evolved into our favorite sky-high ride almost fell to the wayside as we stayed home and watched TV.
Enter Walt Disney. Yes, the creative genius who brought us Mickey and Goofy revitalized the reputation of rocking, rolling cars on tracks. Disney’s Matterhorn blended beautiful scenery with white-knuckled adventures that left an enthralled nation cheering for more. Thank goodness, we got what we wanted.
Today, we honor that insanely amusing, occasionally terrifying and always gripping ride that keeps us lining up for more. We come off the wildest trips swearing to keep our feet planted on the ground. We turn right around, climb back on and shout for joy as we careen around corners and plunge down breathtaking heights. That’s the best way to celebrate the roaring beauty of Roller Coaster Day in all its up and down glory.