Riders enjoy a roller coaster at State Fair of Texas in Dallas. The photo appeared in a 2009 issue of National Geographic.
When the Switchback Railway roller coaster opened at Coney Island on June 16, 1884, it crawled along at six miles per hour (10 kilometers per hour). Though that may sound about as exciting as watching a snail race, back then it caused a sensation and became the country’s first commercially successful roller coaster.
Within the decade, other new coasters rolled on to the scene—not all of them safe.
“The very first coaster to go upside down was the Flip Flap Railway,” says Tim Baldwin, a spokesman for American Coaster Enthusiasts. The 1890s design “put a tremendous amount of strain on the rider’s neck,” causing injuries. It was a financial failure and closed after a few years.
“That was a huge innovation.” Not only did it make for a smoother ride, but “in the 70s, tubular steel allowed roller coasters to go upside down.”
Roller coasters aren’t the only ride at the fair, but they’re one of the reasons amusement parks became so popular in the 20th century. And designers continue to innovate.
“Now,” says Baldwin, there are even “wooden coasters that are safely able to go upside down.”