The History of Roller Coasters: The Ice Slides of Russia Inspire First Roller Coaster
Posted by Staff on Thursday, October 6th, 2011
The inspiration for the modern roller coaster is a very simple ride found in any playground: the slide. During the 17th century, slides reached new heights across Russia in the form of ice slides. As the name suggests, these slides were frozen over with ice and riders were sent careening down the slippery slopes at tremendous speeds. The ice slides of 17th century Russia would engender a desire for longer and more controlled rides among riders and engineers, while paving the way for the development of the earliest roller coasters.
The Russian ice slides were tall wooden structures with ice frozen over a long sloping ramp. These slides would often rise up seventy or eighty feet and the ramps stretched for hundreds. A staircase led up to the launch area where riders mounted a sled made of either wood or ice. The ice sleds were simply a block of ice with a straw mat adding some protection between the freezing ice and the riders’ bottoms. A length of rope was looped through a hole drilled in the block so that sliders had something to hold onto. Once riders were positioned on their blocks, all it took was a little shove and off they went! Occasionally bumps were added at the end of the slide to introduce a little more excitement. At the very end, riders plowed into a pile of sand which slowed them down. Slides were built in parallel pairs, but facing opposite directions. One ramp ended near the stairs of the second slide so riders could spend the day going back and forth down the slides.
The Russian ice slides were popular during winter festivals and developed a fan base amongst both the upper and lower classes; even Catherine the Great was known to enjoy the thrill of the ice slides and had a few built on her property. While the ice slides were thoroughly enjoyed all over Russia, there were some safety issues. Sliding down an ice ramp on a block of ice offered very little in the way of control. One solution slide owners came up with was to offer guides familiar with the wily ways of the sleds to help riders navigate safely to bottom: for a small fee of course. However, it wasn’t until the French picked up on the ice slides and tried building their own that a safer system was invented.
The French businessman that brought the ice slides to France must’ve thought he had hit the entertainment jackpot, but he quickly found out that his country was not quite cold enough to keep the slides totally frozen. The resultant mushy and wet ride inspired the next step in the evolution of the roller coaster, which was to put wheels on the sleds. Wheels obviated the need for ice, but accidents were still just as much of a problem as they were with the ice slides. That’s when the idea for a track was finally hit upon. In 1817, Les Montagues Russes a Bellevilles (The Russian Mountains of Bellevilee), a ride that locked the sleds’ wheels into a track, became the world’s first roller coaster. In that same year, The Aerial Walk, a coaster ride that featured a heart-shaped track was also unveiled. The two tracks of this ride would fan out from the launch tower and meet again at the lift hill. It was these two rides, with their cars firmly locked into a guiding track, that set the stage for all roller coasters to come. The next move toward today’s modern roller coasters would be made across the Atlantic in the United States.