Groovy History: Roller Coasters

The first American roller coaster was actually a railway. The Mauch Chunk Switchback Gravity Railway (shown above) was built in the mountains of Pennsylvania in 1827. The track, originally built to send coal to the bottom of a hill, relied on mules to haul the empty cars back to the top of the hill. During non-peak hours, for one dollar, tourists got a leisurely ride up to the top of the mountain followed by a wild, bumpy ride back down. The railway could attain speeds of up to 50mph. By the 1870s the railway was devoted exclusively to hauling passengers. Mauch Chunk was a model for the first roller coaster built as an amusement ride at Coney Island in 1884.

The Switchback Railway roller coaster at Coney Island.

The Switchback Railway was designed by LaMarcus Adna Thompson in 1881 and constructed in 1884. Riders climbed a tower to the to board the large bench-like car and then were pushed off to coast down 600 feet of track to another tower. The car went just over 6mph.

Over the next 30 years, these scenic rides continued to thrive and were joined by wooden roller coasters similar to the ones we know today. These coasters were the main attraction at popular amusement parks throughout the United States, such as Kennywood Park in Pennsylvania and Coney Island in New York. By the 1920s, roller coasters were in full swing, with some 2,000 rides in operation around the country.

Learn More about roller coasters and inclined planes with our “What Goes Up” Groovy Lab in a Box!

“What Goes Up” A Lesson in Rollercoasters Engineering Design Challenge –   You are a roller coaster engineer and have been given the task to build a roller coaster out of paper to show as a model.  The roller coaster must have 1 loop, 4 curves and demonstrate an inclined plane.  Can you design and build a roller coaster out of paper using only your Groovy Lab in a Box materials?    

During your ENGINEERING DESIGN PROCESS you will learn about the forces that act on roller coasters such as gravity, acceleration, and centripetal force.  

Join Now! and challenge your STEMists to a monthly Groovy Lab in a Box! Each box is full of everything a child needs to learn about and do hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) investigations and engineering design challenges. Our monthly box activates thinking, questioning, inquiring and original creation as we guide children through scientific inquiry and the engineering design process.