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Cheap Thrills: The History of the Roller Coaster

'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself' Franklin D Roosevelt, The president of America during the Golden Age of the coaster, the 1920's.

If you'll pardon the pun, throughout history the roller coaster has had its fair share of ups and downs. Their genealogy can be traced to 15 th Century St. Petersburg when it became voguish to be seen sliding down iced wooden ramps dressed to the nines. Three centuries later these ice slides found an unlikely PR ally in Russia's premier equestrian Sophie Fredericke Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, better known as Catherine the Great. For her imperial majesty one season of sledding wasn't enough and she ordered rollers to be fitted to her sleigh so that it could be used year round.

Soon the idea found its way across Europe to France, where under the name of Les Montagnes Russe ( Russian Mountains) the ride was adapted to suit a more clement climate. Parisians risked their dignity and their necks hurtling down wooden ramps seated side-saddle on wobbly benches, whose feet were capped with wheels.

This was about as far as the French were prepared to go, in the meantime a parallel evolutionary strand was unwinding across the pond in America. In 1874 the directors of the Mauch Chunk coal mine in Pennsylvania found that, with the completion of new transportation tunnel, they had 18 defunct miles of gravity-driven railroad on their hands. They decided to put a passenger car on the rails and charge a few cents for the hour and a half round trip. A decade later an entrepreneur from New York, La Marcus Thompson, married these two ideas and came up with the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway. The roller coaster had been born. Resembling an unwound helter-skelter the Switchback reached a dizzying top speed of 6 miles per hour, and at a nickel a ride paid for itself in just three weeks.

Things moved fast, and by the turn of the century the coaster was enjoying its heyday, with over 1500 rides in the States and a similar number again worldwide. They soon became synonymous with the Roaring Twenties and the ideal way to let off steam in post-war America. After the boom the depression of the 1930's hit hard, income was no longer disposable, and to compound matters a number of over ambitious(and occasionally lethal) coasters nearly buried the business. In America alone, up until 1970, approximately 1500 tracks were destroyed and barely 100 built. During these fallow years all was not lost. Disney, hand in hand with Arrow Development, had revolutionised coaster design with the Matterhorn Bobsled. Tubular steel tracks and lightweight cars changed the industry standard and the Matterhorn Bobsled became the proud ancestor of today's 'scream machines'.

Five extreme roller coaster rides

Oldest: Leap the dips(Lakemont Park, Pennsylvania, USA). A wooden figure of 8 coaster, with a dizzying top speed of 10mph and a stomach churning 9ft drop.

Fastest, longest.and most expensive: Steel Dragon(Nagashima Spaland, Japan) Let the statistics speak for themselves: length 8133 ft, top speed 95 mph, cost £34 million.and all of this in 3.5 minutes.

Longest drop: Millennium Force(Cedar Point Sandusky, Ohio, USA). Many a lunch has been left behind at the top of this 300ft drop.

Steepest drop: Sharing the top spot, with a near vertical drop of 87.5 degrees, are Oblivion(Alton Towers, UK) and G5(Janfusun Fancyworld, Taiwan).

Most off-putting name: Son of Beast(King's Island, Ohio, USA).with Megafobia(Oakwood Leisure Park, Wales, UK) a close second.

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