Stories About the Invention of the Roller Coaster

We currently have few contemporary accounts that shed much light on the invention of the roller coaster. Serious interest in the early history of the ride seems to have begun only in the 1920s or 1930s, after the death of most of the earliest participants in the development of the ride. Here are several earlier accounts, some of which were widely available. Their accuracy is obviously quite variable.

Alanson Wood

New York Times
June 27, 1884

Sliding Up Hill

From the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, June 24.

Mr. Wood, at one time a poor carpenter of Toledo, Ohio, is the inventor of the circular railroad, having conceived the idea from witnessing children slide down the hills on their slide-boards, he arguing that if they could slide down hill they could slide up hill, a demonstration of which is witnessed in the circular railway.

Toledo Bee
January 29, 1902

Alanson Wood to Try for the $200,000 Prize Offered for the Best Dirigible Airship at the Fair

He was the inventor of the now famous "loop-the-loop," which for a time did a precarious business at the Casino grounds. The "loop-the-loop" is now to be found at Coney Island in numbers and also in many other summer resorts. From this invention Mr. Wood received immense sums, and he is now comfortably fixed for life.
The Waukesha Freeman (Waukesha, Wisconsin)
April 17, 1902

Air Full of Ships

For instance, Alanson Wood, Toledo, Ohio, inventor, who, with his partner, made a fortune in twelve short months from his invention--the roller coaster, is now completing the detail work on an airship.
The Fort Wayne News (Fort Wayne, Indiana)
May 2, 1902

Thinks It Will Pay

Alanson Wood, a retired builder and an inventor of some note at Toledo, Ohio, thinks he has got an airship that will surely fly.

...

Wood, who thinks he has won wealth by this invention, is the inventor of a "roller coaster"--a sort of a "loop-the-loop" device--that he sold for $30,000. He also spent six months trying to solve perpetual motion, and then gave it up, without going crazy.

The Toledo Blade
May 4, 1909

Inventor Is Dead
Alanson Wood Died Today
Was the Inventor of Roller Skates and the Roller Coaster--Eighty Years Old.

Alanson Wood, 80 years old, and famed as the inventor of roller skates and the roller coaster, died at 9:30 this morning at his home, No. 7 Vienna flats, after a long illness.

...

He was an inventor of several important devices, but in only two of them did he reap a reward. Being a carpenter, he was naturally handy with tools, and it was not long after he had begun working on the bench that his inventive genius asserted itself.

Wood was one of the original inventors of the roller skate. He perfected the first model and then sold his invention to an eastern capitalist for a large sum. This was in 1881. Two years afterward he invented the first roller coaster, the forerunner of the "Figure 8." This was his most profitable invention. He sold the rights in this coaster on a royalty basis, and made over $17,000 in one year.

Toledo News-Bee
May 4, 1909

Many Failures Hasten Death Of An Inventor

Wood was a successful inventor. He made and lost a fortune through the roller skate and roller coaster, both of which he invented. Mr. Wood's profits on these two inventions were invested in Toledo real estate, which he lost during the 1908 panic.
New York Times
May 5, 1909

Obituary Notes

Alonzen Wood, aged 80, famed as the inventor of the roller coaster, and who originated many improvements on the roller skate, died at Toledo, Ohio, yesterday, after a long illness. He devoted the last ten years of his life to a study of aeronautics, and spent several years in building a heavier-than-air machine.
Coshocton Daily Times (Coshocton, Ohio)
May 5, 1909

Toledo Inventor Dies

Toledo, O., May 5.--Alanson Wood, 80, famed as the inventor of the roller coaster, and who originated many improvements on the roller skate, died here after a long illness.
The Galveston Daly News
January 1, 1910

Necrology

May
4. Alanson Wood, inventor of the roller coaster, Toledo, Ohio.
Toledo News-Bee
March 30, 1922
One supposed that most everybody knows that the roller coaster, common at resorts, is a Toledo invention, but for fear that there is a new generation that doesn't know it, it is here said again. Alanson Wood, long dead, was the boy who put the breath of life into that business. One of the customers tells of his place up on Madison-av and Michigan-st, where Alanson built his first coaster running on wheels made of several dozen old roller skate wheels strung together. The first attempt was rather crude, but the idea was there, and millions have been made out of it.

LaMarcus Thompson

Scientific American
September 8, 1888

Thompson's Gravity System for Rapid Transit in Towns and Cities

A new system of operating passenger railroads in towns and cities, in which the cars are operated by gravity, is shown in our first page illustrations, the distances apart of the stations being approximately such as would be represented by the passenger stations on a city railway. The operative features of such a construction have had numerous illustrations in various switchback railways and coasting tracks at seaside resorts and other places, not to mention the famous switchback road at Mauch Chunk, Penn., which was used for many years to convey coal from the mines to the banks of the Lehigh, and where the inclines are extensive. It has, however, remained for Mr. L. A. Thompson, of Philadelphia, to perfect the working details for the operation of a city railroad on this plan, for which letters patent have been granted to him here and in all the principal countries of the world.

...

Mr. Thompson has had much experience in building gravity roads. He erected numerous switchback railway coasting tracks in this country prior to 1887, when he went abroad and built a score or more of such roads in England and France, which have proved a great attraction at numerous seaside resorts, watering places, and centers of public resort. Our contemporary, La Nature, in describing these railways, recently gave Mr. Thompson due credit as the constructor, but said he was an Englishman. He is, however, a wide-awake, enterprising American.

The Thompson gravity or switchback roads are now in operation in Atlantic City, Lakeside, Gloucester, Paterson, N. J.; Neshaminy Falls, Chestnut Grove, Pa; Bay Ridge, Md.; Washington, D.C.; Alexandria, Richmond, Va.; Coney Island, Bowery Bay, Oak Point, Saratoga, Rockaway Beach, Rochester, N. Y.; Cheltenham Beach, Chicago; Reeds Lake, Grand Rapids; Coronado Beach, Santa Monica, Cal.; Providence, R. I.

Of the Thompson roads there are also now in operation, in London, three. Of the roadways, in Manchester, two; Newcastle-on-Tyne, one; Blackpool, one; Liverpool, two; Douglas (Isle of Man), two; one in Brighton, Skegness, Great Grimsby, Great Yarmouth, and Folkestone; in Glasgow, two; Hull, one; in Paris, three; Boulogne, one; Barcelona, Spain, one. Millions of passengers have been carried on these gravity roadways, and we believe no serious accident has ever occurred on them. The form of these roads, as erected by Mr. Thompson, will be seen by reference to the engraving of the roadway built by him at Boulogne, given on page 150.

[It is worth noting that Thompson does not claim in this article to have invented the roller coaster. This article was also reprinted in the October, 1888, issue of Manufacturer and Builder.]

The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England)
October 19, 1888

The Safety and Success of the Switchback.
An Interview with the General Manager of the Switchback Railway Company.

The switchback is safety itself, and the very essence of the concern, that which gives it its name, is the switch by which the car is switched from one line of rails and run into another. It is quite impossible for such an accident to happen on a switchback railway as that which happened on the roller-coaster at the Crystal Palace. The roller-coaster is an ancient invention by which two cars in rapid succession run rapidly down a curved incline and then ascend about half-way to their original level at the other end of the curve. The breaks did not work, and the ascending car descended, with consequences horrible to contemplate. On the switchback, supposing that a car did run backwards, it would not run into anything; the possibility of risk is minimized.

...

The switchback is one of the greatest successes of the day. It was only last year that Mr. Thompson established the first switchback ever seen in active operation in England. Long ago, there used to be something like a switchback in the Tivoli Gardens at Copenhagen, and again seventy years ago in Paris, where the Montagnes des Russes had a great vogue. Although there have been no end of inventions showing on paper how a railway could be made something like the switchback, Mr. Thompson, last year, was the first man who ever proved by actual demonstration that the switchback could be made and worked with perfect safety in this country.

Omaha World Herald
November 15, 1894

Zip! Kawhiz!
The Plan of an Inventor for Sending People to Courtland Beach--Street Car Talk.

Mr. Thompson, the inventor of the switchback railway and of the "scenic railway" used at the World's fair, hopes to see passengers for Courtland Beach heeding the cry: "Hold your hats," and sliding between the beach and Sherman avenue. He has lately visited this city and made an off-hand survey of the land between the avenue and that pleasure resort and has pronounced such a road practicable. He has given an estimate to the beach company, but it will not contract for such a road this year. The expense is enormous and besides many people would be nervous about taking the ride.
Columbus Evening Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
August 13, 1895

The "Scenic Railway."

Mr. L. A. Thompson is the inventor of the scenic railway and is present to superintend the construction. He is a man of considerable reputation in his line, which is gravity railway building. He built his first successful gravity road at Coney Island, N. Y., in 1884. Then he went to London in 1887 and operated his switch-back railroad during the queen's jubilee. It was a "howling success" and divided honors with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.
Street Railway Journal
April 7, 1900

Amusements for Parks

It is now about sixteen years since the first "switchback" railway without the scenic tunnel features was built in this country, and during the period which has elapsed L. A. Thompson, the inventor of this form of amusement, has expended large sums of money in the development of them.
Macon Weekly Telegraph
July 15, 1909

A Fortune in Fun

How millions have been made out of the lightest and apparently most ridiculous amusement devices, and how the American public has made Coney Island and its ilk a national institution is told most interestingly by Reginald Wright Kauffman in Hampton's Magazine. He says:

A little more than twenty-five years ago Mr. L. A. Thompson, a mechanical engineer, then in the West in search of health, saw a mountain gravity road in operation in connection with a mine, and, remembering that the contemporary amusement parks were strangers to all devices save seesaws, box swings and merry-go-rounds for children, he began to wonder if it wouldn't pay him to go from one of these places to another and superintend the construction of gravity roads, the freight of which would be not ore, but adult, amusement-seeking humanity.

Thompson made drawings. He got a piece of ground. Then, doing much of the work with his own hands, he built his road and proved his theory.

It was a trivial thing, that first switch-back, compared with the sort that you may ride in today. Ten persons at a time climbed a long flight of steps and clambered into a car that promptly dropped them down an incline of 450 feet. Then they got out, climbed another flight of steps, and swarmed into another car which brought them to their place of departure. The entire contrivance had cost just $1,600, but Thompson had "made good."

Park owners changed their scoffing to imitating, because the switchback was emptying their own places, but their change was only the traditional one from frying pan to fire, because the canny Mr. Thompson had made a few quiet trips to Washington and had protected his device by a series of iron-barred and time-locked patents. Today he is a millionaire, is at the head of a company capitalized at $900,000, and builds scenic railways (he is just now in London, building one) which, running over a mile and carrying sometimes twenty-eight persons to the car, frequently cost $100,000 each.

Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, Utah)
July 30, 1910

Making Thrills for Coney

[by Henry McMahon, in the New York Evening Post]

Pleasure railways came into existence about 26 years ago. L. A. Thompson and S. E. Jackman have each been credited with the honor of being the pioneer. While Thompson was putting up his first primitive "switchback," where now runs the Sea Beach Walk at Coney Island, Jackman was building his first toboggan slide around the interior of the Globe roller skating rink at Haverhill, Mass.

New York Daily Tribune
September 11, 1910
This is the story of the origin of the roller coaster. L. N. Thompson was riding in a train once when he saw some boys sliding down hill. Now, Mr. Thompson had been born in Indiana, and afterward had lived in Arizona. There were no hills about his Indiana home and there was no snow in Arizona. As he looked at the boys he felt as if he had been deprived of his birthright in his own boyhood and declared that he would like to go sliding then and there.

The more he thought it over, the surer he became that thousands of grown-up people everywhere must feel the same way. If he could make it respectable for grown-ups to go sliding, he believed they would like it. Thereupon he bought a ticket for a Pennsylvania town where he had heard that a coal company was running a road by gravity, coasting its cars down one hill with force enough to take them up another. The plan worked perfectly, so Mr. Thompson experimented for a while, perfected plans for guarding his passengers' safety and took out patents on his road. This was the "switchback" which was built in Coney Island in 1884.

Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona)
February 8, 1914

The Evolution of the Roller Coaster
Lemarcus A. Thompson Conceived the Idea of a Scenic Railway While Wintering in Arizona Thirty Years Ago; He Now Has Plants All Over Europe and America and Is Building Five Roller Coasters for the California Expositions.

Mark Thompson, the man who originated the roller coaster conceived this idea for separating the people from their coin while health seeking in Arizona 30 years ago. [...] To a reporter for the Citizen he told of the development of the roller coaster from the first plant he erected at Coney Island 30 years ago to the five big plants he is erecting at San Francisco and San Diego.

...

After having spent eight months on the desert, Mr. Thompson started east again. He had seen a fellow operating a coaster in a park in New Orleans which gave him the idea for his scenic railway and he wanted to get back east and try it out. After many difficulties he succeeded in erecting a plant at Coney Island but did not know how the public would take to it. On the Sunday announced for the opening, he was very apprehensive but the railroad was packed to capacity all day and night found him with several bushel baskets full of money. The roller coaster was a success from that day on.

New York Times
March 9, 1919

L. A. Thompson Dead.
Inventor of Scenic Railway Dies at His Home, Thompson Park.

LaMarcus Adna Thompson, well-known inventor of the Thompson Scenic Railway and other devices, and managing director of the L. A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company, 220 West Forty-second Street, died last night at his home, Thompson Park, Glen Cove, L. I., at the age of 71 years.

Mr. Thompson, was born at Jersey, Licking County, Ohio, March 8, 1848. The spare moments of young Thompson in Ohio, were devoted to the inventing, building, and operating of mechanical toys, such as cross-bows, carts, wagons, etc. After attending Hillsdale College for a short time he completed his schooling in 1866 and then engaged in the wagon and carriage business. In 1873 he moved to Elkhart, Ind., where, besides operating a grocery store, he turned his attention to invention, his first device being for the manufacture of seamless hosiery. A factory was started and in a short time the annual business was running over $250,000 a year, when Mr. Thompson's health failed and he sold his interest.

Returning to Elkhart after a period of recuperation in Arizona, he invented the switch-back railway which, through subsequent improvements, developed into the Thompson Scenic Railway. It was first patented in 1884, and during the next three years nearly thirty patents were granted Mr. Thompson for the many devices he applied to scenic railways. In 1895 he incorporated as the L. A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company.

Brooklyn Eagle
March 9, 1919

Thompson, Scenic Railway Man, Dies

In 1883 he was exiled to the desert of Arizona owing to ill health, and on his return to the East in 1884, at New Orleans, he started the first switchback, and there evolved the fundamental idea upon which all his later inventions were subsequently based.

About the time of his first invention Coney Island was just springing into prominence as a center of amusement, and Mr. Thompson here installed the first switchboard railway in 1884.

New York Sun
March 9, 1919

L. A. Thompson Of Coney Fame Dies

LaMarcus Adna Thompson, whose invention of the scenic railway has made Coney Island famous since 1884 ... died last evening ...

...

Illness caused by overwork in building up the Eagle Knitting Company at Elkhart caused an enforced period of rest in Arizona, and it was there that he conceived a plan to introduce the outdoors to the American people. He suffered then from insommnia, and was compelled by his medical advisor to walk until he dropped from exhaustion. He overcame the illness and on his way north stopped at New Orleans. There in 1883 he built his first "switchback." The gravity theory which he evolved in this invention was the subject of considerable scientific discussion at that time.

He came to Coney island in 1884, obtained a concession and built his "switchback." It proved a sensation and the following year he developed the scenic railway. It was the signal for the roller coaster craze to sweep the country and orders came in so rapidly from amusement park managers that he formed a construction company, retaining practically all of the stock, for handling the business on a large scale.

Billboard
April 12, 1919
The late La Marcus A. Thompson probably caused more laughs and thrills than any other man who ever lived. There are few people in the world who have not ridden on a gravity ride of some sort: scenic railway, coaster, racer or called by some other name, they all operate on the same principle, and for the same purpose. L. A. Thompson conceived the idea, designed the structures, built and operated not only the first ride, but for the life of the patents, seventeen years, built all such rides all over the world and left a prosperous corporation, "The L. A. Thompson Scenic Railway Co.," carrying on the same work of amusing the public ...

The following item was printed in a number of newspapers as early as October, 1919, and as late as February, 1920:

The fact that he was deprived of the fun of sliding downhill when a boy led to the invention of the roller coaster by L. N. Thompson, later famous as the founder of Luna park.

[This item obviously conflates LaMarcus Thompson with Frederic W. Thompson, who died June 6, 1919.]

Kansas City Star
July 17, 1921

The People Are Amused - And How

It was in this way I met Lawrence C. Philips, and it was thus he told me many interesting things, some of which I shall set down here so that you may profit by them if you can.

...

The elder Thompson, old L.A. did more than anyone else to develop the various gravity rides and other attractions of such parks as this. He was the Edison of the amusement game. He invented these various rides and thrills, thought out new things and planned their engineering. Very little that is new has come since he died.

Popular Mechanics
November, 1924

Cyclones to Houses of Mystery
How the Mechanical Wonders in Modern Outdoor Amusement Parks Are Invented and Constructed

... the coaster, which is the development of the old "switch-back" built by L. A. Thompson, father of the gravity ride, for Coney Island in 1884 ...
New York Evening Post
June 11, 1926
The opening of the first scenic railway on Coney Island by Lamarcus A. Thompson will be celebrated at the "Big Dipper" ride on Surf avenue Monday by the L. A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company, for "Thompson's Patented Switchback" was built June 14, 1884, on that site. Flag Day comes the same day, so hundreds of new flags will be displayed by the company. Then the guests will visit the latest thing in rides, the "Bobs Coaster," and other attractions.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York)
June 13, 1926
Tomorrow is Flag Day and it is also the 42d anniversary of the first operation of a scenic railway at Coney Island by Lamarcus A. Thompson on Surf ave. on June 14, 1884.
Amsterdam Daily Democrat and Recorder (Amsterdam, New York)
July 12, 1927
Forty three years ago, L. A. Thompson, a pioneer in the creation of amusement park thrillers, built the first scenic railway at Coney Island. It operated small motorized cars, by means of a third rail, over a loop system, which the inventor called a "Switch Back." It covered a straightaway of slight dips and inclines, then reversed, and ended at its starting point.
New York Sun 1939
July 1, 1939

All Coneys to Live in Museum

On the "switchback ride" (1884) the car glided down to the foot of an incline and the passenger walked aloft again to catch it on the way back.

other or unnamed inventors

The following story was widely printed in newspapers in July, 1885

Coney Island Letter.
Pencil and Pen Pictures of the People's Seaside Resort.
Vanity Fair--Sea Bathing and Lung Treating--An Invention That Made a Tramp a Millionaire--The Elephant Hotel.

There was a tramp, it is said, a regular one, with bad eyes, back hair sticking out of his hat, and toes sticking out of his shoes, just like the rest. He slunk along like one who preferred even to steal the air he breathed. Nasty old tramp that he was! But one day he had been hanging around a roller skating rink. He had frequently seen the happy young ones sailing up and down the sidewalk upon their wheeled skates. A thought struck Mr. Tramp. If people could go skating in summer time, why couldn't they go sleigh-riding too? He pondered on it a good many times, in his lazy way. He quite wore the crown out of his greasy old hat rubbing his hair so that that the idea could get through it. At last it worked out. It took shape. The result was this curious gravity railway that about equally scares and delights the Johns and Marys. John feels a call to hold Mary fast in the thing, so she won't fall out, which makes it rather more popular than it would otherwise be. This tramp was an uncommonly shrewd tramp. He patented his plans and found somebody to back him with capital. The idea took like wildfire. Every country resort and every beer garden or Sunday picnic ground erected a roller coaster. Everybody with whom his own dignity was not a primary consideration wanted to ride in it. In less than no time Mr. Tramp was worth half a million. He found himself a gentleman before he knew it. Last I heard of him he was making the grand tour of Europe along with the other gentlemen. I hope the story is true.

[by Eliza Archard]

Philadelphia Inquirer
October 24, 1909

Thrills for Thousands
Tempting Profits in Devising New Amusements

The switchback furnishes another illustration of how to make money rapidly. Invented about twenty years ago, it was first tried on the public at Coney Island, and it literally made that now famous American resort, and subsequently became "the rage" all over the civilized world.

As a money-drawer it has had few, if any, equals. At Shanghai, for instance, a railway, after working only eleven days, paid all expenses, and it was possible, moreover, for the directors of the company to declare a dividend of 10 per cent., and carry $500 to the reserve fund. The dividend was--allowing 308 working days to the year--at the rate of 280 per cent. per annum, while the addition to the reserve fund was at the rate of 14,000 per annum.

What the inventor of the switchback made out of it may be inferred from a single fact. Coming to this country, he sold his English rights alone for a million and a quarter. His gains, in fact, amounted to millions!

The most recent thrill-producer of this kind--the scenic railway--bids fair to beat all records. It was evolved a few years ago, in remarkable circumstances.

When the inventor of the switchback had made his millions out of it, he began speculating on the Stock Exchange, with the result that in fifteen weeks he lost the whole of his money.

But instead of resolving to die, he at once set to work to make some more, and the upshot was the scenic railway, which is, after all, only an improved switchback. At once the invention "caught on," and ever since it has been a fine money-drawer.

Two or three months ago a company which then owned seventy-three scenic railways in America refused an offer of eight millions for its rights.

The scenic railway at the White City paid the whole cost of its construction in the first two months it was working.

[This article was widely reprinted in other newspapers. It is placed in this section because La Marcus Thompson is not named, although the references to the switchback and scenic railway presumably refer to him.]

New York Times
January 15, 1919

Obituary Notes

Stephen E. Jackman, who died at his Winter home in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Monday, was the inventor of the roller coaster and identified with other Coney Island amusement enterprises and real estate. He was 66 years old. Mr. Jackman lived at 306 Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, and was a Director of the Bank of Coney Island. He was a thirty-second degree Mason.
New York Clipper
January 22, 1919
Stephen Edward Jackman, inventor of the roller coaster and one of the best known showmen of Coney Island, N. Y., died January 14 at his winter home in Petersburg, Fla., aged sixty-six years. [...] In 1886 he turned his attention to inventing amusement devices and started the roller coaster, which made its first appearance at the Haverhill Rink in 1887. It soon became popular all over the country, and one was built at Coney Island, where it was known as "Jackman's thriller."
Salt Lake Telegram
November 12, 1919
The first roller coaster was built at Coney Island in 1884, only 460 feet long and with the longest drop but ten feet.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
June 30, 1929

Gather Old-Time Fun Devices At Coney's Museum

It is interesting to note that the roller coaster was in vogue in 1881, four years before Thompson decided to safeguard his invention by patenting it.
New York Times
August 27, 1931
Byron B. Floyd, 91 years old, Civil War veteran and inventor of a roller toboggan said to be the forerunner of the roller coaster, died at his home [in Haverhill, Massachusetts, August 26].
New York Sun
December 17, 1940

An Earlier Coney
An Old Fogey Recalls Some of the Sights No Longer There.

Near the camera obscure was the first roller coaster. It consisted of a circular track about 75 feet across, tilted up on one side about 15 feet. The rolling stock consisted of one park bench with four flanged wheels on it. You got on at the top, was pushed off and came around to near the starting point. The car was then pushed up to the starting point.
Billboard
January 30, 1943

Sherline Recalls Old Gravity Rides

William A. (Bill) Sherline, carpenter and contractor who built the first Roller Coaster for John Cyrus Wood back in 1876 ...

Originally constructed in Chicago, the first such ride was officially introduced to wild acclaim and big business in Cincinnati.

Comments may be sent to Victor Canfield, vac3@psu.edu

Last revised 9-Oct-2012

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