Peter Takes on History
June 16, 1884
Fun with Gravity!
There is an island that … well, it isn't actually an island. Settled by the Dutch, the first hotel was built there in 1829 but by the end of the 19th Century there were scores of hotels, restaurants, a racetrack and three amusement parks - Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase where Cary Grant once worked as a stilt-walker ambling up and down the two and a half mile boardwalk entertaining crowds that, during the peak summer season, could top one million a day.
It’s called Coney Island. Rabbit Island in Dutch. Just a subway ride away for New Yorkers, there was plenty to see, do and taste. This is where Nathan’s hot dogs originated. And frozen custard. Two enterprising Coney Island brothers discovered that egg yolks added to ice cream slowed the melting. The first bike path in the US stretched from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to Coney Island. And one of the first Neonatal Intensive Care Wards. A bizarre little footnote in Coney Island history. In the late 1800’s incubating human babies was a “crazy new idea” so one proponent, Dr. Martin Couney (pronounced CONEY of course) set up a ward right on the beach and encouraged parents with premature babies to rush them to his facility. The doctor didn’t charge parents but asked viewers to donate a quarter to gawk at the premises. As bizarre as it sounds, Dr. Couney was quite successful. About 6500 of the roughly 8000 babies commended to his care survived and American Hospitals took notice!
Another less unbelievable first, on this day June 16th, 1884 the first roller coaster opened for business. A wealthy gentleman named LaMarcus Thompson is considered the father of the Roller Coaster or “gravity ride” as they were first known. Thompson made his fortune inventing a machine to spin seamless women's hosiery before turning his attention to gravity. His concept was known as a Switchback Railway because people climbed stairs 50 feet to the top, rode the railway down, got off, and switched to the opposite side for the ride back up!
Switchback seating didn’t face forward. Folks sat on benches looking out to the side. See, the original roller coaster wasn’t about thrills, it was about gazing at the scenery while the car lazed along at a pokey six miles per hour. So it might surprise you to hear Thompson’s switchback railway was an instant success! For a couple of reasons. First, before the elevator was invented in 1880, there were no “tall” buildings. People craved aerial views! It’s what made the Eiffel Tower such a hit in 1887! The second thing is, though train travel allowed folks to venture a bit farther from home, few had seen the streets of Paris, the canals of Venice or or the majestic heights of the Swiss Alps. So, while the ride down the Coney Island switchback offered panoramic views of the Atlantic, on the ride back up folks faced continuous, highly detailed murals, painted by renowned artists of the day, depicting exotic international locations!
Thompson’s scenic railways were so popular he operated six in Coney Island alone, and dozens more throughout the U.S. and in Europe. They remained popular right up through the 20’s when other railways, some benefiting from Thompsons own patented improvements, began adding acceleration to the roller coaster equation. Thompson wasn’t interested. He even tried to market his rides as “Safety Coasters.” But the greed for speed won out. From Thompson’s Coney Island Switchback Railway that moved at 6 MPH 50 feet in the air, we’ve progressed to the Formula Rossa at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi with a top speed of 149 miles per hour and the Kingda Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey standing 456 feet tall! Definitely not your great, great grandfather’s coaster!